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Magical Cheap Energy

“One barrel of oil ... contains the energy equivalent of close to five years of one person's hard physical labor”

Paul:

 

Clara, I am afraid that you, like most people, confuse technology, and all the progress it has generated, with energy. They are vastly different things; one is no substitute for the other.

 

Energy is no ordinary economic resource, like human-built technology; it is the gateway resource that gives access to all other resources — natural and human-made. And when cheap, nonrenewable, fossil-carbon energy is gone, no amount of innovation or technology will be able to compensate for it.

 

Look, I understand that no one wants to hear that we may be reaching energy, resource, and pollution limits on our planet — and certainly no elected politician could ever speak such dismal truths — but creating more money by expanding debt will not solve the fundamental energy and resource predicament that we are in. Unfortunately, most people in the industrialized world find it next to impossible to think of energy as a limited commodity.

 

Business-as-usual tweaking with the expectation that some new technology will soon save us means game-over for both the economy and the environment.

 

Things have got to change — in a very big way and very soon!

 

Jack:

 

Cheap energy is already on the decline globally due to the inconvenient physical reality that while most economic goods persist after an exchange and have some resale value, energy gets used up and is no longer available in the marketplace. This is because it follows the laws of physics (thermodynamics), not our imaginary 'laws' of economics.

Not surprisingly the least popular of all of the laws of physics, the Second Law of Thermodynamics (aka Law of Entropy), asserts that the energy in a whole system, while being conserved, will spontaneously transform from concentrated form (like the thermal energy in a fresh hot cup of coffee) to more dispersed form (as the coffee naturally cools down to room temperature while heating up the entire room — ever so slightly).

 

This natural tendency can be reversed in subsets of a whole system, by applying external energy to concentrate its form locally (like reheating the coffee in a microwave), but the net effect is always an ultimate decrease in the total availability of concentrated energy sources (like our fossil fuels).

I wonder how many people are aware of the fact that just one barrel of oil (42 gallons), costing around fifty dollars today — the price of dinner for two at a restaurant — contains the energy equivalent of close to five years of one person's hard physical labor! Five years!

 

And over ninety percent of industrial labor today is fossil-fuel labor, not human labor.

 

Fossil-carbon energy resources like coal, oil, and natural gas, are highly concentrated sources of chemical energy derived from natural resource stocks. As a source of energy to power human civilization, they are indistinguishable from magic in their remarkable energy density and portability and took hundreds of millions of years to ‘manufacture’ through geologic forces. But they are non-renewable resources, unlike energy from the sun.

 

Solar energy, in contrast, is a diffuse source of electromagnetic energy derived from non-depleting natural resource flows. But, of course, it supports and is supported by very different technologies.

 

Coal, oil, and natural gas are the pressed and cooked remains of the plants (mostly) and animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. It is because they are flammable, that we burn them as fuel.

 

If you think about it, what we are doing is greedily turning this truly amazing one-time energy endowment, along with other natural resources, into dollars, then into fleeting feel-good emotional consumer experiences, then into waste in our linear take-make-waste economies.

 

And we are doing this at an ever-accelerating rate. Rising energy and material usage correlates strongly with rising GDP numbers.

 

Today, almost 90 percent of the energy used on Earth to drive, cook, light, warm, cool, and manufacture stuff is used to feed our machines — millions of mechanical fossil-fueled slaves working for us night and day that we completely take for granted.

 

We each now use about one hundred times more energy than our hunter-gatherer ancestors to support our lifestyles.

 

But this gluttonous fossil-carbon energy gorging can not go on much longer, let alone grow larger. The peak of world conventional (cheap) oil production occurred in 2005. We are rapidly approaching the end of the age of cheap, abundant, concentrated fossil-carbon energy. And we are not preparing for that momentous change in any substantial way.

 

Tucker:

 

That is all such political left-wing bullshit!

 

All this concern over global warming from burning fossil fuels and scary resource depletion scenarios is just a grand socialist wet dream to give more control over to big government.

 

Businesses are the most dynamic and adaptive institutions that have ever existed on this planet. They will solve these problems, including energy and environmental problems, as they emerge. It’s what they do best.

 

Paul:

 

Never gonna happen, Tucker, and you know it — you are not stupid.

 

For-profit, shareholder-owned corporations have proven themselves time and again to be best suited for one thing only, and that is concentrating economic power for their own internal profit-seeking purposes, that's it. They won't do what is necessary to address these problems.

 

Not only are corporations generally insulated from accountability for the harms they inflict on individuals, communities, and Nature; they have a fiduciary duty to not give a damn about future generations, environmental health, or sustainable business practices unless shareholders can benefit immediately somehow.

 

If corporations cared so much, why is it that real wages for average Americans peaked in the early 1970’s, while overall productivity has gone up dramatically since then? Only the top five percent are making more than they were a decade ago.

 

And why is it that deaths of despair from suicide, prescriptions drug overdoses, and alcohol-related illnesses are on the rise among white, middle-aged Americans without college degrees?

 

Given the vast availability of cheap labor from the growing populations of developing countries, wages in developed countries have been driven down with globalization, thus widening the disparity between labor and capital in high-wage countries.

 

Chronic economic inequality is justified by claiming that global labor wages will eventually equalize and start to rise as the rest of the world develops and attains middle class lifestyles — which is an ecological impossibility!

 

Continuing to grow the global economic pie over time as a solution to address inequality ignores the reality that our biospheric oven is only so big — and it's starting to get uncomfortably hotter.

 

Julie:

 

It may be that we will have to accept the existence of some alternate form of responsible and accountable world governance to manage shared resources now that we are living in a world where we humans so clearly dominate and influence the natural world.

 

We are now unwittingly inflicting tremendous damage on the environment from our collective impact.

 

Did you know that in the last forty years, we’ve lost half of all the large animal life on the planet?

 

Humans, our livestock, and our domesticated animals now vastly outnumber other wild animals. This is the sad outcome of unregulated free markets and unchecked economic growth.

 

Corporations, generally, are only interested in maximizing short-term profits and have no inherent interest in sustainable, steady-state resource management.

 

Somehow we have got to reclaim our democracy from this corporate tyranny and bring to a quick end our present eco-cidal economic trajectory. A shock to our collective complacency is surely coming.

 

The modern industrial era of fierce competition, domination, and destruction must be terminated with extreme prejudice to clear the way for a new era of equitable distribution and biospheric re-balance and restoration.

Theology of Growth

Money Out Of Thin Air >