Energy is the underappreciated driver of life. Humanity is at a turning point from energy present and energy past to energy future.
Energy Present: The Age of Wood
Once upon a time wood was the universal fuel and material: wood for fire; wood for houses, boats, wagons and plows; charcoal for working metals.
The age of wood was the age of energy present. Humanity could use it only as fast as it grew. If they wanted more, they had to find other lands with virgin timber. And they did want more, like the European colonizers of the Americas.
We can’t go back to wood. Today’s population would deforest the planet in no time.
Energy Past: The Age of More
Beginning in England 300 years ago, the European portion of humanity and its American offshoot evolved an industrial civilization using first coal, then oil, and finally fossil methane (natural gas). These fossil fuels are energy past, tens of millions of years’ worth of fossilized sunshine, of plants subjected to heat and pressure underground.
This new kind of civilization can now burn several centuries’ worth of fossilized plants in a year. Economic growth became possible, then desirable, then absolutely necessary. Industrial civilization built of steel, cement, glass, and plastic floated free of organic restraints, or so it seems to those of us who grew up thinking this was normal.
Suddenly we find that we’ve motored up the river of no return without a paddle. The fumes of fossil energy are shifting the hospitable climate our ancestors knew into a more hostile state. Our bulging population depends for its food on artificial fertilizers made with fossil methane. The acidifying oceans are overfished. Wild nature is disappearing, and where humanity encroaches on its remnants, pandemic diseases are mutating. Heat will render desert regions like the Near East and the American southwest uninhabitable. Alternating droughts and floods will make our food supply more precarious. In the worst case scenario, displaced populations of hungry people will breed strife and bring about the collapse of globalized society.
Coal, oil and gas companies are resorting to more extreme measures to find new stores of fuel. The supply is, after all, limited. The age of energy past is coming to an end. The expectation of more must yield to the reality of less.
Energy Future: The Age of Less
Energy future ought to be called the age of renewable energy, right? If only it were that simple. Solar and wind electricity, the dominant forms of renewable energy, are not as clean as they’re cracked up to be. Wind turbines, solar panels, and the large-scale batteries to provide backup power when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, require steel, cement, and mining for rare minerals, all of which come with environmental and human costs.
Solar and wind electricity generators harvest the energy of sun and wind, which is plentiful but diffuse, so they take up a lot of space. Many people oppose them for their presence and visibility alone.
Worse yet, they won’t let us kick fossil fuels. Current technologies won’t let us build the infrastructure of renewable energy with renewable energy. Fossil fuels are still necessary to fuel most high-temperature industrial processes.
Renewable energy is fuel-free, but it isn’t really clean, green or even renewable; solar panels and wind turbines aren’t recyclable, yet. The ultimate purist might take Less Energy to mean no energy, an energy-free utopia. Should we all move to the tropics where it never gets cold, eat all our food raw, and use no tools we can’t make with our bare hands?
At a minimum, those of us who live in the temperate latitudes need energy to heat our homes in winter. Then we could ban motorized transport and settle into a world of small farmers, herdsmen and a handful of hunter-gatherers. There are still people who live like that. We could derive energy from carefully harvested wood and other plant “biomass,” and water wheels and small dams in streams.
But we no longer have the knowledge, skills or equipment to return to preindustrial lifeways. The climate crisis is a real emergency that calls for realistic solutions. We need to downsize the flows of materials and energy we use and end economic growth, but we’ll still need a lot of energy.
How Much Energy Is Less Energy?
Less energy is some undecided amount of energy less than what we’ve grown accustomed to. If we could muster the collective will for collective decisions — an enormous if — it would go something like this.
We have a reservoir of fossil fuels — often called the carbon budget — that we can still burn without tipping the climate into irreversible disaster. The uses this reservoir may or may not be put to must be prioritized. We can’t leave it to free enterprise to follow its time-honored path to profit by making any damn thing it can find a market for, or advertise a market into existence for. There has to be a plan.
The first priority for fossil fuel use is to build the wind and solar energy infrastructure while putting science and engineering to work finding carbon-free ways to make the components. Steelmaking, for one, can be electrified; already nearly 70% of US steel is made by recycling scrap steel in electric arc furnaces. The supply of steel is limited either by the supply of electricity or the supply of scrap. Other materials pose harder problems, but experiments are underway on carbon-free ways to make cement and on new battery chemistries that won’t depend on minerals that are scarce or difficult and dangerous to mine and process, like lithium and cobalt.
Since we’ll be relying on incoming solar energy instead of burning centuries’ worth of ancient plants every year, economic growth with its overproduction, overconsumption and waste will have to cease.
Then we’ll have to decide what we can and should produce with our less energy — what we need. Deciding what goods and services were necessary for the civilian economy was done during World War II by short-lived and largely forgotten agencies like the War Production Board, although the WPB was tasked with allocating strategic materials to the military, not rationing energy. And in 2020 we got another taste of deciding which economic activities are essential during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Like a city under siege by a rising sea, we will have to come together.