Our society runs on cheap and readily available energy just as our bodies require oxygen. And, just as any restriction in our supply of oxygen causes us immediate and serious harm, so will any crimp in the supply of energy rapidly drop our civilisation to its knees. That energy has allowed us to do fantastic things. In fact, we have been “high” on energy since the Industrial Revolution, but the party is winding down. We must change how we think about energy – now.
Substitute “energy” for “love” in the song by Sweet and you ruin the rhythm but get a fairly accurate idea of how important energy is:
Love is like oxygen
You get too much you get too high
Not enough and you’re gonna die
Love gets you high
Why is energy considered so critically important to our civilisation? Simply, there is no civilization-as-we-know-it without the energy we use in its current forms and proportions, mainly fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydroelectric. Any significant change in any of those energy sources and our civilisation would be severely shocked. We have built our society upon cheap and reliable energy.
Civilisation is built on a ready supply of energy; cut the supply and civilisation nosedives. Reduce the supply or increase the price, and civilisation takes a step back. Given that our current energy supplies are in jeopardy, we need to rethink – and rapidly redo – our energy security
Oil Substitutes or Get Off Oil?
To get an idea of our dependence upon oil and related products, consider this: Everything in the United States and Canada is transported by gas or diesel, excluding the occasional bike messenger. Our industrial farming system requires oil or natural gas-based fertilisers and pesticides. Our entire economy is based upon the ability to transport raw materials and finished products from one side of the world to the other cheaply – using oil-fueled transportation. We live in a global economy and think nothing of clothing from China and apples from New Zealand. Now imagine that oil was either no longer available or prohibitively expensive. In theory, we simply go back to manufacturing things and growing food closer to home. In practice, it’s not that easy.
Given our societies’ extreme dependence upon, and therefore vulnerability to the supply of, oil and natural gas, we should be moving rapidly to do one or both of:
- Develop and implement oil substitutes
- Reduce the amount of oil needed
In reality, it is not so simple to swap out oil for something else. Technophiles suggest we will simply transition to different energy sources, from biofuels to electricity. However, consider this:
In 2002 a panel of top U.S. energy experts, writing in the journal Science, noted that current global power use is 12 trillion watt-hours per year, with 85 percent of it coming from fossil fuels. The panel concluded that replacing those fossil fuels with biomass energy would require planting as much additional land as is already planted on the entire planet.
In other words, there is not enough land to grow all our fuel. Brazil is busy razing the rainforest to grow their fuel, which seems likely to lead to a very bad outcome for all of us, given that the tropical rainforests have been called the “lungs of the planet.” And the more land we plant to feed our cars instead of ourselves drives food prices up; the government of Haiti fell for this reason, there were riots in Mexico, and there was talk of food protectionism in various countries. This is all quite recent.
So, we convert to electric everything, right? And use solar, wind power, nuclear, and whatever else we can scrounge up to run it. Easy. Well, is it? How many electric transport trucks have you seen lately? And while electric trains are common in other countries, the U.S. and Canada have none, our rail systems are severely degraded, and most areas are now designed to be supplied by trucks on roads; there are no rails.
Don’t even think about electric cars for everyone; the energy required to replace the entire U.S. fleet would be staggering, and material for batteries would rapidly be in short supply.
In the potential conversion of the world’s road fleet from oil-based fuel to electric or PHEV type transport, it is not the amount of lithium in total that is likely to be the problem but the rate of recovery of it. To match the present 60 million number of new cars on the roads each year, this would need to be expanded by fifty-fold, a considerable undertaking in mining and production which is probably impossible. Electric cars are likely to become a rich-man’s luxury, while the level of transportation per se inevitably and vastly declines.
– World Lithium Supplies and Electric Vehicles
Keep in mind that I have only discussed the energy needs of transportation. How many homes are heated by oil or natural gas? All industrial farming is completely reliant upon oil and gas for everything from tractor fuel to pesticides and fertilizers, most of which are petroleum-based. And what about manufacturing?
The Waste-based Economy
We waste colossal amounts of energy. For example, 10 calories of energy are required to produce 1 calorie of food; imagine increasing the price of that energy – or shortages of it; no energy: no food. 95% of the energy used by a car is for moving the car; only 5% is to move the occupant. Our houses and buildings leak energy.
There is great room for improvement – we could reverse things and steadily become more efficient. Substituting oil comes with many complications and unexpected consequences – and costs. Reducing the amount of energy we use, on the contrary, saves energy, money, and resources. The United Kingdom and France have mandated net-zero houses by 2016 and 2020, respectively; these are houses that use no external energy over the course of a year. Reducing energy used by buildings is critical, because:
…there are hundreds of coal-fired power plants currently on the drawing boards in the US. Seventy-six percent (76%) of the energy produced by these plants will go to operate buildings.
Through simple changes to building codes, net energy use could be cut to zero for all new buildings.
Transportation is more difficult, because we’ve spent the last 50+ years building roads and organising our living arrangements around them. We have neglected or even deliberately destroyed rail, which is much more efficient than trucking or flying products and people around, in favour of roads. Rail can also be electrified, handy when oil prices increase. We should rebuild the railways and mandate that all intercity freight go by rail. That takes all the trucks off the highways – and we should stop subsidising the U.S. interstate freeways and Trans-Canada Highway. That puts people back on trains for short-to-medium distance passenger trips.
Food could certainly be grown more locally and organically. The best ways to accomplish this are to stop subsidising agriculture and to protect farmers with trade barriers. Yes, protectionism for food. Being dependent for one’s food supply on another nation, and on cheap energy to get it to you, is foolish anyway. Free trade should be for luxuries, not the necessities of life. The 3,000-mile Caesar salad would be no more, but it’s a goner anyway as oil prices rise.
Waste Not, Want Not
Transitioning to a green economy, in which there is no such thing as waste…eliminates waste, including wasted energy. For example, manufacturers in Germany must take back used appliances. The result is that they now design for this, so they can recover the materials and reuse them in new appliances.
There are many ways we can conserve, some easy and some not so, but all are worthwhile. However, there are still some difficulties to be overcome:
- Conservation is opposed by people who currently hold great power over our governments – the fossil fuel and auto lobbies
- We are behind the curve: Building windmills, hydrogen-powered tractors and so forth currently requires energy from coal, oil, and natural gas; we have not yet built solar-powered steel mills
- Canada could use its vast hydro and oil reserves to retool – if the US lets us. More likely the Americans will insist that “free” trade and other agreements entitle them to our oil (the ‘national interests’ of the US may be summed up as “Whatever we need, wherever it may be found, and however it can be taken with maximum profit”)
We could wait for the market to retool to a green economy, but there is no such thing as a free market. Powerful vested interests have been making sure of that for decades. The fast solution is for the government to mandate this retooling, but the market fundamentalists and vested interests will do their best to ensure this doesn’t happen until it is too late.
If we let that happen, energy prices will surely increase, oil and natural gas shortages are very likely, and the difficulty in sustaining civilisation will rise sharply.
Imagine yourself locked in an airtight box; the oxygen is running out and you are starting to gasp for breath. There is a window in the box and you can see an oxygen bottle outside, but to move there requires oxygen; without it your body will shut down and you will die. So do you gulp in as much air as you can, break out of the box, and go for the oxygen? Or do you stay where you are and hope for a miracle?
This latter describes our current energy policy. The energy is running dangerously low. We’re stuck in a box, with a fat-cat oil CEO blocking the only exit. Do you wait until you have even less energy before trying to break out of the box? Or do you remove him as an obstacle now? Your choice; your life and our civilisation depend upon making the right one.