Energy Literacy, Part II: Why Less Energy Is More

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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

A 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.

Why? Let’s zoom out from the details of our dilemma and take in the big picture. As we do, two fundamental problems become clear:

First: We have exceeded global levels of energy consumption that are sustainable. The sheer scale of our energy use today is fantastic when compared with that in any era of history. Today the human population is roughly seven times larger than it was just prior to the Industrial Revolution—a dramatic and dangerous population growth trajectory—but we use 30 times as much energy. On average, each human today uses the energy equivalent of 360 gallons of gasoline annually, which translates to about as much energy as a typical person would expend in 10 years of hard labor. On average, each American commands the services of roughly 150 “energy slaves.” (In other words, if all power consumed by each of us had to be supplied by human muscles, it would take 150 people working 24/7 to supply it).

And still we want more! We have come to depend on economic growth in order to ensure more jobs and higher profits each year, and economic growth implies increased use of energy. Yet producing incremental additions to global energy supplies has become a task of monumental proportions, requiring soaring amounts of investment capital as well as swelling streams of raw materials (not only coal, oil, and gas, but also water, steel, copper, uranium, neodymium, lithium, gallium, aluminum, etc.) as well as burgeoning armies of trained personnel. In short, we have gotten used to an economy that is overpowered and that demands still more power each and every year.

Second: We have created an energy infrastructure that has overpowered natural ecosystems, thereby threatening the future of many species—our own included. The vast scale of our production of highly concentrated fuels enables us to use tools of a colossal nature. Diesel-powered ocean trawlers overwhelm the ability of commercial fish species to rebound. Diesel-powered shovels rip apart mountains to get at the coal and other minerals buried inside. A billion cars and trucks and tens of thousands of jet aircraft and coal- and gas-fired power plants spew carbon into the air, undermining climate stability. Chain saws and bulldozers level 13 million hectares of forest per year, while diesel-powered paving machines turn thousands more hectares of agricultural land, forest, and habitat into highways, runways, and parking lots. The United States alone has paved 6.3 million kilometers (3.9 million miles) of roads, enough to circle the Earth at the equator 157 times.

Currently, our strategy for staving off social and ecological collapse is yet more economic growth. That means still more energy production to fuel more industrialization of agriculture, more transportation, more construction, and more manufacturing. But how do we propose to increase energy supplies? The solutions being put forward by the energy industry and most governments include: applying more advanced technology to the exploitation of marginal fossil fuels (tar sands, deepwater oil, shale oil, shale gas, and others); building more nuclear reactors and developing third and fourth-generation reactor technologies; and tapping renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, and wave power. Nearly everyone agrees that we should also use energy much more efficiently than we do now. But even factoring in realistic efficiency gains, official agencies such as the International Energy Agency and U.S. Department of Energy predict increasing demand for energy for as far into the future as their forecasts can peer.

This book argues that, while our choices about which energy resources we use are important, each and every option has costs. Even energy efficiency has costs: It is subject to the law of diminishing returns (each further increase in efficiency tends to cost more than the previous one), while energy saved in one part of the economy will tend to be used in another. And the costs of increasing our energy production are, in more and more instances, exceeding the benefits. We have reached a point of crisis with regard to energy, a point where the contradictions inherent in our growth-based energy system are becoming untenable, and where its deferred costs are coming due. The essential problem is not just that we are tapping the wrong energy sources (though we are), or that we are wasteful and inefficient (though we are), but that we are overpowered, and we are overpowering nature.

These conclusions have no constituency among the powerful. Politicians and business leaders seem interested only in finding ways to increase energy production and consumption. But if what we are saying in this book is true, the only reasonable path forward is to find ways to use less energy.

For the already-industrialized world, energy consumption is at such high levels that substantial reductions would still leave plenty of room for the enjoyment of modern conveniences. For less-industrialized countries, where hundreds of millions live with very little electricity or liquid fuel, it is essential that “development” be redefined in terms of sufficiency and quality of life, instead of being measured in numbers of cars and highways, and in tons of food, raw materials, and manufactured products exported.

In short, our task in the 21st century is to scale back the human enterprise until it can be supported with levels of power that can be sustainably supplied, and until it no longer overwhelms natural ecosystems. Undoubtedly, that enterprise will in the end consist of fewer people using less, on a per capita basis, than is currently the case. As we power down, we will find ways to use the technologies and scientific understandings developed during our brief, unsustainable, and probably unrepeatable period of high energy use in order to make the inevitable energy decline survivable and perhaps even salutary. But power down we must.

This book is a photographic tour of the world of energy, illustrating the costs and trade-offs of constantly expanding efforts to fuel industrial processes. Pictures often tell a story in ways that words cannot, and we the editors felt that the paper and printer’s ink required for this volume were not only justified but required. It is one thing to describe verbally the results of tar sands mining in Alberta. It’s quite another to see the shocking images of Canada’s boreal forest turned to a blasted wasteland by brontosaurus-sized machines clawing ever deeper into a constantly expanding environmental sacrifice zone.

Energy also features essays by a diverse collection of authors who do not necessarily agree with one another on every point. Their contributions were selected to highlight a range of issues related to energy production and consumption, and especially the environmental consequences of energy use, in the 21st century. The book is organized to illuminate topics according to a sequential and cumulative logic. However, readers may feel free to dip in anywhere, as their interest leads them. Each essay makes its own case on its own terms.

What emerges from this verbal and pictorial mosaic is an impression of a planet and a society in crisis—a crisis of overconsumption on one hand, and of overwhelming impacts on increasingly fragile natural systems on the other. Our goal is to help change the national and global conversation about energy—to help it evolve quickly from one of how to grow energy production to one of how to shrink our appetites to fit nature’s ability to sustain itself.

Take a good look at what it takes to power our human world of cities and machines. Think about the tens of millions of years’ worth of fossil fuels we are burning in mere decades; about the billions of tons of geologically stored carbon we are releasing into the atmosphere; about the landscapes we ravage, the water we foul, the air we pollute, and the species we drive into extinction in order to fuel our industrial mega-machine.

Then ask yourself: Is all of this really necessary? Couldn’t we just use less?

—Richard Heinberg

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