Last week, I began the process of laying out three key realities that promise the United States a continuing era of decline and contraction. It may surprise some that I started with America’s impending loss of its global empire, rather than a focus on peak oil and other realities of energy and resource depletion, considering that those latter issues will be such a large part of the focus of this blog. Yet, that was purposeful; part of the basic tone of this blog I’m aiming for is one of hard-nosed realism, in which we face the future honestly and with as little evasion as possible. The loss of empire this country is likely to experience in the near future is, in many ways, a more pressing issue for our national stability and well-being than the longer term decline of available energy and resources. While the latter is a greater long term predicament, the former is likely to create more immediate and encompassing disruption, and has the potential to dramatically change our living arrangements in a relatively short period of time.
That said, I may be wrong about our future loss of empire. It will happen at some point, obviously; no empire lasts forever, any more so than any individual human does, any species does, any planet does, or so on. But it may not happen in my lifetime, despite all evidence to the contrary (assuming, of course, that I have a decent amount of lifetime left). Perhaps my concerns about a dramatically reduced living as outlined in last week’s post are overblown and unnecessary. Even if they are, however, we’re hardly out of the woods. There’s a greater issue bearing down on us and slowly picking apart the ways we live and interact, and that’s the inexorable march of energy and resource depletion.
As with empire, I’m not looking here to argue again a subject that has been argued to death on the internet and beyond, but I do want to lay some basic groundwork to make sure we’re all on the same page and that readers understand my perspective on the issue and how it informs my thoughts—even if you don’t agree with every element of what I’m about to explain. The question of energy and resource depletion is both complicated and fraught with opinion, incomplete data, and conflicting interpretations of that incomplete data. As such, there’s a heavy fog that can be thrown over the subject, and there are undoubtedly major elements of our future use of energy and physical resources that remains unknown and unknowable in advance. Still, there are some general trend lines that are clear—and there are basic physical realities that, so far as I’m concerned, are even more clear.
We use a lot of energy, coming out to about 552 exajoules of primary energy in 2010 alone. The vast majority of that came from fossil fuel sources. Back in 1830, meanwhile, we used about 24 exajoules of energy, almost all of it coming instead from biomass and biofuels. How did we get to today’s level of consumption? Well, it’s really quite simple: we increased our per person energy usage while dramatically increasing our number of people. In 1830, we used an average of approximately 22 gigajoules per person. With a bit over a billion people, that works out to the aforementioned 24 exajoules of energy used in 1830. By 1920, we had increased to an average per person use of about 35 gigajoules of energy—but we also nearly doubled our population, and as a result increased our total energy usage to 69 exajoules of energy, or almost three times what we used in 1830. Over the next 90 years? We more than doubled our per capita energy use to about 80 gigajoules and more than tripled our population; by the time the dust had settled, we found ourselves using eight times as much energy as in 1920 and 23 times as much as in 1830.
This is the power of exponential growth, and it only gets worse as time goes by. We’ve added half a billion people to the world’s population in the last six years alone and, while world energy usage numbers aren’t currently available past 2013, the trend line of increased population and increased per capita energy usage seems to be holding mostly steady, though the recent crash in oil prices and attendant decrease in worldwide production may have flat-lined or decreased this trend over the past couple years. Despite that possibility, though, the fact remains that we have been engaging in exponential growth of energy use over the past few hundred years, and that is simply an untenable situation on a finite planet.
That’s the ultimate rub here, and it’s really a very basic and unforgiving reality. You cannot have endless growth on a finite planet. Period. There is only so much energy buried here on Earth. There is only so much arable land, fresh water, and space. There are only so many physical resources. There is a limit to how much we can use and how many people can exist on Earth. There’s no getting around that fact. That is a simple truth and it’s one that we are beginning to face as our own exponential growth in population and impact continues to exhaust this planet. We cannot continue growing.
This simple fact extends not only to our population, but our economy and its attendant use of our only world. (Our only home.) We cannot continue a growth economy either. That too must come to an end.
You can look at this picture in a variety of ways, but they are all harsh in their reality. Tom Murphy at his Do the Math blog is, to my mind, one of the better writers at clarifying the picture. He has looked at our energy predicament from a number of angles and has laid out our troubles in a variety of ways. His peak oil primer is excellent and does a nice job of summarizing this immense issue. His look at the feasibility of continued growth in energy consumption notes that we would have to cover every bit of available land in solar panels within a few hundred years simply to continue our levels of growth—and then goes on to note that we would raise the temperature of our atmosphere to the boiling point of water within less than 500 years at a 2.3% annual growth rate. And his excellent post on economic growth notes that it, too, is a long-term impossibility, and the post also puts lie to the much-touted economic idea of “decoupling” economic growth from energy and resource use.
In plain terms, what we have done over the past few centuries is tap into billions of years worth of sunlight stored in the Earth’s crust and we’ve gone on to spend it with wild abandon. As Murphy notes in his above peak oil primer, the amount of oil discoveries in recent years has dropped dramatically lower than the annual amount of oil we extract and burn. In essence, this is the same as spending out of a very rich bank account while depositing each year into it far less than you spent. It doesn’t matter how high the balance was to start—it’s finite, and it will eventually be exhausted if you’re putting in less each year than you’re taking out. We’re putting in far less now than we’re taking out and we’ve spent the last couple hundred years—and, in particular, the last few decades—spending a hell of a lot of money and burning a hell of a lot of oil.
When we do deign to gnaw on this problem as a society, we tend to obsess over how to increase the supply of energy. Thus, we regale ourselves with stories of endless solar panels and wind turbines, and with the myth that renewable sources of energy can replace fossil fuels. Unfortunately, that’s not the case; not in the sense we most often talk about it, anyway. Solar, wind, and other renewable sources cannot swap out with fossil fuels, for a variety of reasons rooted in physics, economics, and politics. Again, Tom Murphy does a very nice job of cogently summarizing some of the issues with replacing fossil fuels in his post “The Energy Trap.” Renewables are far from useless and they can likely create their own modest and sustainable supply of energy, but it will be at a far lower level than we currently enjoy by exploiting stored sunlight—and that level and form of energy is going to require a dramatically different way of living and of organizing our politics, economics, and culture.
The greater need we face is to reduce our demand. We need to suck up the fact that our bank account is dropping fast and cut back our spending before we become bankrupt and ruined. Remember the earlier number about per capita energy usage? Well, we need to begin dropping that. Here in America, we need to work with even greater vigor since we use four times that earlier-mentioned per capita number. Reduction in demand is an absolutely critical first step in dealing with the predicaments of our time. Partly this is because we’re going to have to use less energy whether we want to or not, but also this is because we need to use less of everything if we’re going to productively face our future. Simply put, we are devouring this entire planet. Documentations of the destruction of earth’s physical resources abound online and in printed form, just as documentations of our depletion of fossil fuels do. The picture is bleak. Good topsoil is washing out to sea, blowing away in the wind, and being poisoned under destructive agricultural practices. Clean water is being similarly wasted and poisoned, and drying up under climate change and overly intensive usage. Forest are disappearing; a massive number of species are disappearing; ecosystems and unique habitats are disappearing. We have turned this planet into a mess and our response, more often than not, is to close our eyes and pretend otherwise.
Here’s the simple reality, though: we cannot continue to use up the world’s energy and resources and expect anything other than an increasingly toxic stew of slow- and fast-moving calamities. Already they are occurring, and the coming years will only make them worse. This is perhaps the greatest reason that we need to reduce demand rather than trying to maintain or increase supply. We cannot continue using up and discarding our home and we will do just that if we don’t get ourselves under control. In his essay from 2013, “Less Energy, More Life,” Wendell Berry made the simple observation that “If we had a limitless supply of free, nonpolluting energy, we would use the world up even faster than we are using it up now.” He’s right. The problems and predicaments we face today stem first and foremost from bad living; a new source of energy will not fix that. More will not fix that. Only less will.
It is restraint that we need now. We’ve driven ourselves into lives of dysfunction, waste, alienation, disaffection, and despair. We have done it with more energy, more money, more stimulation, more distraction, and more stuff. What we need now as a response to this failure is less. We don’t need less in the form of deprivation or ascetism, mind you. We need less so that we can stop being so damn tired—not to mention distracted, overwhelmed, and crazed. More is killing us. It’s exhausting us. It’s stripping the joy and sensation from our lives. We need better and happier lives, and we can only do that with less and the sort of better living that less brings within reach.
As it happens, less is also a response to the hard realities of energy and resource depletion, and so it’s one of the better strategies out there for responding to our troubled present and future. It also is going to be a crucial response to the third factor that’s driving the U.S. and the entire industrialized world deeper into decline and contraction, which is the continuing consequences of our ongoing disruption and destruction of our natural systems. Those are pressing hard against us right now, in a more immediate way perhaps than depletion is, and it’s only through adapting and embracing lives of less that will be able to respond to this reality in an effective manner. We’ll be talking about that next week.