The Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy has just released its Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) 2018, with forecasts for American oil, gas and other forms of energy production through mid-century. As usual, energy journalists and policy makers will probably take the document as gospel.
That's despite the fact that past AEO reports have regularly delivered forecasts that were seriously flawed, as the EIA itself has acknowledged. Further, there are analysts inside and outside the oil and gas industry who crunch the same data the EIA does, but arrive at very different conclusions.
The last few EIA reports have displayed stunning optimism regarding future U.S. shale gas and tight oil production, helping stoke the notion of U.S. "energy dominance." No one doubts that fracking has unleashed a gusher of North American oil and gas on world markets in the past decade. But where we go from here is both crucial and controversial.
The most comprehensive critiques of past AEO forecasts have come from earth scientist David Hughes, a Fellow of Post Carbon Institute (note: I, too, am a Post Carbon Institute Fellow). Since 2013, Hughes and PCI have produced annual studies questioning EIA forecasts, based on an analysis of comprehensive play-level well production data. Their latest report, a critical look at AEO2017, is just out.
"Shale Reality Check: Drilling Into the U.S. Government's Rosy Projections for Shale Gas & Tight Oil Production Through 2050" explores four big questions crucial to the realization of the EIA's forecasts:
1. How much of the industry's recent per-well drilling productivity improvement is a result of better technology, and how much is due to high-grading the best-quality parts of individual plays? Over the past few years, industry has shown the ability to extract increased amounts of oil and/or gas from each well. This has been achieved in part by drilling longer horizontal laterals, tripling the amount of water and proppant (usually sand) used per unit of well length, and increasing the number of fracking stages. It is also in part a result of "high-grading," or focusing drilling on the best-quality parts of each play (termed "sweet spots" or "core areas"). The decline in average well productivity observed in parts of some plays, despite the application of enhanced technology, suggests that sweet spots there are becoming saturated with wells. When this happens, drillers must either move to lower-quality rock outside of sweet spots, or drill wells too close together, which results in well interference or "frac hits" and reduced well production.
2. Can technological advancement in the industry continue to raise productivity indefinitely? If, as the EIA suggests, improved technology will continue to increase well production, then perhaps per-well productivity can continue to grow for some time. However, based on the analysis of recent data, Hughes questions this (as does a team of MIT researchers). Well productivity is already declining in some plays, despite the application of enhanced technology, indicating that technology and high-grading have reached limits. Given uniform reservoir quality, improved technology allows the resource to be extracted more quickly with fewer wells, but it does not necessarily increase the overall amount of resource that can be recovered.
3. What will be the ultimate cumulative production from all U.S. tight oil and shale gas wells? Taking the above points into account, Hughes concludes from a detailed analysis of production data that the EIA is making extremely optimistic assumptions about ultimate production and long-term production rates in most shale plays.
Production over the long term is likely to be fraction of what the EIA is forecasting.
4. What about profitability? So far, overall, the industry has lost money on tight oil production, and shale gas has done little better. That's even with most recent drilling being focused in core areas. The industry and its investors assume that if productivity continues to increase, and oil prices rise, profitability will eventually materialize. But what levels of oil and gas prices would be required to profitably extract fuels in the large non-core areas that the EIA assumes will eventually be tapped after "sweet spots" are drilled and exhausted? The AEO offers little in the way of realistic analysis on this point.
Let's approach this subject another way. If you were an EIA analyst and you wanted to produce the most optimistic estimate possible of future U.S. oil and gas production, how might you go about it? You might do the following:
- Mischaracterize the source of recent productivity improvements (assume it's mostly technology, not high-grading);
- Extrapolate recent well productivity improvements far into the future, even though evidence suggests this is unwise;
- Assume that large areas that are not currently being drilled will be highly productive; and
- Ignore price and profitability.
Check, check, check and check.
Hughes figures, using EIA assumptions, that meeting the agency's projections for shale gas and tight oil through 2050 for the 88 percent of production that would come from major plays would require drilling and fracking over 1 million wells at a cost of $5.7 trillion (the remaining 12 percent would require .68 million wells at a cost of $4.1 trillion). The EIA's own estimate for all oil and gas (conventional, shale and offshore) is 1.3 million wells at a cost of $7.7 trillion. It would also consume countless billions of gallons of water and millions of tons of sand and chemicals. One might question the plausibility of this scale of expenditure of capital and physical resources. But even if the project were practically feasible, would it represent the best use of money in securing our energy future? And would the inevitable near- and long-term health and environmental impacts be somehow justified?
The EIA seems to assume that its audience consists of potential investors in struggling tight oil and shale gas companies, and that it speaks on behalf of those companies. That's not the proper role of a government agency. Taxpayers who fund AEO reports deserve realistic estimates of future production, costs of production and prices needed for profitable production. Otherwise, the agency's pronouncements will continue to resemble those of the Wizard of Oz: Be amazed! Be awed! But pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Our core ecological problem is not climate change. It is overshoot, of which global warming is a symptom. Overshoot is a systemic issue. Over the past century-and-a-half, enormous amounts of cheap energy from fossil fuels enabled the rapid growth of resource extraction, manufacturing and consumption; and these in turn led to population increase, pollution and loss of natural habitat and hence biodiversity.
The human system expanded dramatically, overshooting Earth's long-term carrying capacity for humans while upsetting the ecological systems we depend on for our survival. Until we understand and address this systemic imbalance, symptomatic treatment (doing what we can to reverse pollution dilemmas like climate change, trying to save threatened species and hoping to feed a burgeoning population with genetically modified crops) will constitute an endlessly frustrating round of stopgap measures that are ultimately destined to fail.
The ecology movement in the 1970s benefitted from a strong infusion of systems thinking, which was in vogue at the time (ecology—the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments—is an inherently systemic discipline, as opposed to studies like chemistry that focus on reducing complex phenomena to their components). As a result, many of the best environmental writers of the era framed the modern human predicament in terms that revealed the deep linkages between environmental symptoms and the way human society operates. Limits to Growth (1972), an outgrowth of the systems research of Jay Forrester, investigated the interactions between population growth, industrial production, food production, resource depletion and pollution. Overshoot (1982), by William Catton, named our systemic problem and described its origins and development in a style any literate person could appreciate. Many more excellent books from the era could be cited.
However, in recent decades, as climate change has come to dominate environmental concerns, there has been a significant shift in the discussion. Today, most environmental reporting is focused laser-like on climate change, and systemic links between it and other worsening ecological dilemmas (such as overpopulation, species extinctions, water and air pollution, and loss of topsoil and fresh water) are seldom highlighted. It's not that climate change isn't a big deal. As a symptom, it's a real doozy. There's never been anything quite like it, and climate scientists and climate-response advocacy groups are right to ring the loudest of alarm bells. But our failure to see climate change in context may be our undoing.
Why have environmental writers and advocacy organizations succumbed to tunnel vision? Perhaps it's simply that they assume systems thinking is beyond the capacity of policy makers. It's true: If climate scientists were to approach world leaders with the message, "We have to change everything, including our entire economic system—and fast," they might be shown the door rather rudely. A more acceptable message is, "We have identified a serious pollution problem, for which there are technical solutions." Perhaps many of the scientists who did recognize the systemic nature of our ecological crisis concluded that if we can successfully address this one make-or-break environmental crisis, we'll be able to buy time to deal with others waiting in the wings (overpopulation, species extinctions, resource depletion and on and on).
If climate change can be framed as an isolated problem for which there is a technological solution, the minds of economists and policy makers can continue to graze in familiar pastures. Technology—in this case, solar, wind and nuclear power generators, as well as batteries, electric cars, heat pumps and, if all else fails, solar radiation management via atmospheric aerosols—centers our thinking on subjects like financial investment and industrial production. Discussion participants don't have to develop the ability to think systemically, nor do they need to understand the Earth system and how human systems fit into it. All they need trouble themselves with is the prospect of shifting some investments, setting tasks for engineers and managing the resulting industrial-economic transformation so as to ensure that new jobs in green industries compensate for jobs lost in coal mines.
The strategy of buying time with a techno-fix presumes either that we will be able to institute systemic change at some unspecified point in the future even though we can't do it just now (a weak argument on its face), or that climate change and all of our other symptomatic crises will in fact be amenable to technological fixes. The latter thought-path is again a comfortable one for managers and investors. After all, everybody loves technology. It already does nearly everything for us. During the last century it solved a host of problems: it cured diseases, expanded food production, sped up transportation and provided us with information and entertainment in quantities and varieties no one could previously have imagined. Why shouldn't it be able to solve climate change and all the rest of our problems?
Of course, ignoring the systemic nature of our dilemma just means that as soon as we get one symptom corralled, another is likely to break loose. But, crucially, is climate change, taken as an isolated problem, fully treatable with technology? Color me doubtful. I say this having spent many months poring over the relevant data with David Fridley of the energy analysis program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Our resulting book, Our Renewable Future, concluded that nuclear power is too expensive and risky; meanwhile, solar and wind power both suffer from intermittency, which (once these sources begin to provide a large percentage of total electrical power) will require a combination of three strategies on a grand scale: energy storage, redundant production capacity and demand adaptation. At the same time, we in industrial nations will have to adapt most of our current energy usage (which occurs in industrial processes, building heating and transportation) to electricity. Altogether, the energy transition promises to be an enormous undertaking, unprecedented in its requirements for investment and substitution. When David and I stepped back to assess the enormity of the task, we could see no way to maintain current quantities of global energy production during the transition, much less to increase energy supplies so as to power ongoing economic growth. The biggest transitional hurdle is scale: the world uses an enormous amount of energy currently; only if that quantity can be reduced significantly, especially in industrial nations, could we imagine a credible pathway toward a post-carbon future.
Downsizing the world's energy supplies would, effectively, also downsize industrial processes of resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and waste management. That's a systemic intervention, of exactly the kind called for by the ecologists of the 1970s who coined the mantra, "Reduce, reuse and recycle." It gets to the heart of the overshoot dilemma—as does population stabilization and reduction, another necessary strategy. But it's also a notion to which technocrats, industrialists, and investors are virulently allergic.
The ecological argument is, at its core, a moral one—as I explain in more detail in a just-released manifesto replete with sidebars and graphics ("There's No App for That: Technology and Morality in the Age of Climate Change, Overpopulation, and Biodiversity Loss"). Any systems thinker who understands overshoot and prescribes powerdown as a treatment is effectively engaging in an intervention with an addictive behavior. Society is addicted to growth, and that's having terrible consequences for the planet and, increasingly, for us as well. We have to change our collective and individual behavior and give up something we depend on—power over our environment. We must restrain ourselves, like an alcoholic foreswearing booze. That requires honesty and soul-searching.
In its early years the environmental movement made that moral argument, and it worked up to a point. Concern over rapid population growth led to family planning efforts around the world. Concern over biodiversity declines led to habitat protection. Concern over air and water pollution led to a slew of regulations. These efforts weren't sufficient, but they showed that framing our systemic problem in moral terms could get at least some traction.
Why didn't the environmental movement fully succeed? Some theorists now calling themselves "bright greens" or "eco-modernists" have abandoned the moral fight altogether. Their justification for doing so is that people want a vision of the future that's cheery and that doesn't require sacrifice. Now, they say, only a technological fix offers any hope. The essential point of this essay (and my manifesto) is simply that, even if the moral argument fails, a techno-fix won't work either. A gargantuan investment in technology (whether next-generation nuclear power or solar radiation geo-engineering) is being billed as our last hope. But in reality it's no hope at all.
The reason for the failure thus far of the environmental movement wasn't that it appealed to humanity's moral sentiments—that was in fact the movement's great strength. The effort fell short because it wasn't able to alter industrial society's central organizing principle, which is also its fatal flaw: its dogged pursuit of growth at all cost. Now we're at the point where we must finally either succeed in overcoming growthism or face the failure not just of the environmental movement, but of civilization itself.
The good news is that systemic change is fractal in nature: it implies, indeed it requires, action at every level of society. We can start with our own individual choices and behavior; we can work within our communities. We needn't wait for a cathartic global or national sea change. And even if our efforts cannot "save" consumerist industrial civilization, they could still succeed in planting the seeds of a regenerative human culture worthy of survival.
There's more good news: Once we humans choose to restrain our numbers and our rates of consumption, technology can assist our efforts. Machines can help us monitor our progress, and there are relatively simple technologies that can help deliver needed services with less energy usage and environmental damage. Some ways of deploying technology could even help us clean up the atmosphere and restore ecosystems.
But machines can't make the key choices that will set us on a sustainable path. Systemic change driven by moral awakening: it's not just our last hope; it's the only real hope we've ever had.
Through net metering programs, homeowners who have installed solar energy systems can get utility credits for any electricity their panels generate during the day that isn't used to power home systems. These credits can be "cashed in" to offset the cost of any grid electricity used at night.
Where net metering is available, solar panels have a shorter payback period and yield a higher return on investment. Without this benefit, you only save on power bills when using solar energy directly, and surplus generation is lost unless you store it in a solar battery. However, net metering gives you the option of selling any excess electricity that is not consumed within your home.
Generally, you will see more home solar systems in places with favorable net metering laws. With this benefit, going solar becomes an attractive investment even for properties with minimal daytime consumption. Homeowners can turn their roofs into miniature power plants during the day, and that generation is subtracted from their nighttime consumption.
What Is Net Metering?
Net metering is a billing arrangement in which surplus energy production from solar panels is tracked by your electricity provider and subtracted from your monthly utility bill. When your solar power system produces more kilowatt-hours of electricity than your home is consuming, the excess generation is fed back into the grid.
For homeowners with solar panels, the benefits of net metering include higher monthly savings and a shorter payback period. Utility companies also benefit, since the excess solar electricity can be supplied to other buildings on the same electric grid.
If a power grid relies on fossil fuels, net metering also increases the environmental benefits of solar power. Even if a building does not have an adequate area for rooftop solar panels, it can reduce its emissions by using the surplus clean energy from other properties.
How Net Metering Works
There are two general ways net metering programs work:
- The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your utility company, and a credit is posted to your account that can be applied to future power bills.
- The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your home's electricity meter. Modern power meters can measure electricity flow in both directions, so they tick up when you pull from the grid at night and count down when your solar panels are producing an excess amount of electricity.
In either scenario, at the end of the billing period, you will only pay for your net consumption — the difference between total consumption and generation. This is where the term "net metering" comes from.
How Does Net Metering Affect Your Utility Bill?
Net metering makes solar power systems more valuable for homeowners, as you can "sell" any extra energy production to your utility company. However, it's important to understand how charges and credits are managed:
- You can earn credits for your surplus electricity, but utility companies will not cut you a check for the power you provide. Instead, they will subtract the credits from your power bills.
- If your net metering credit during the billing period is higher than your consumption, the difference is rolled over to the next month.
- Some power companies will roll over your credit indefinitely, but many have a yearly expiration date that resets your credit balance.
With all of this in mind, it is possible to reduce your annual electricity cost to zero. You can accumulate credit with surplus generation during the sunny summer months, and use it during winter when solar generation decreases.
You will achieve the best results when your solar power system has just the right capacity to cover your annual home consumption. Oversizing your solar array is not recommended, as you will simply accumulate a large unused credit each year. In other words, you cannot overproduce and charge your power company each month.
Some power companies will let you pick the expiration date of your annual net metering credits. If you have this option, it's wise to set the date after winter has ended. This way, you can use all the renewable energy credits you accumulated during the summer.
Is Net Metering Available Near You?
Net metering offers a valuable incentive for homeowners to switch to solar power, but these types of programs are not available everywhere. Net metering laws can change depending on where you live.
In the U.S., there are mandatory net metering laws in 38 states and Washington, D.C. Most states without a mandate have power companies that voluntarily offer the benefit in their service areas. South Dakota and Tennessee are the only two states with no version of net metering or similar programs.
If net metering is available in your area, you will be credited for your surplus energy in one of two ways:
- Net metering at retail price: You get full credit for each kilowatt-hour sent to the grid. For example, if you're charged 16 cents per kWh consumed, you'll get a credit of 16 cents per kWh exported. This type of net metering is required by law in 29 states.
- Net metering at a reduced feed-in tariff: Surplus electricity sent to the grid is credited at a lower rate. For example, you may be charged 16 cents per kWh for consumption but paid 10 cents per kWh exported. Feed-in tariffs and other alternative programs are used in 17 of the states where retail-rate net metering is not mandatory.
Note: This is just a simplified example — the exact kWh retail price and solar feed-in tariff will depend on your electricity plan.
The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) is an excellent resource if you want to learn more about net metering and other solar power incentives in your state. You can also look for information about solar incentives by visiting the official websites of your state government and utility company.
Other Financial Incentives for Going Solar
Net metering policies are one of the most effective incentives for solar power. However, there are other financial incentives that can be combined with net metering to improve your ROI:
- The federal solar tax credit lets you claim 26% of your solar installation costs as a tax deduction. For example, if your solar installation had a cost of $10,000, you can claim $2,600 on your next tax declaration. This benefit is available everywhere in the U.S.
- State tax credits may also be available depending on where you live, and they can be claimed in addition to the federal incentive.
- Solar rebates are offered by some state governments and utility companies. These are upfront cash incentives subtracted directly from the cost of your solar PV system.
In addition to seeking out solar incentives available to you, you should compare quotes from multiple installers before signing a solar contract. This will ensure you're getting the best deal available and help you avoid overpriced offers and underpriced, low-quality installations. You can start getting quotes from top solar companies near you by filling out the 30-second form below.
Frequently Asked Questions: Solar Net Metering
Why is net metering bad?
When managed correctly, net metering is beneficial for electricity consumers and power companies. There have been cases in which power grids lack the capacity to handle large amounts of power coming from homes and businesses. However, this is an infrastructure issue, not a negative aspect of net metering itself.
In places with a high percentage of homes and businesses using solar panels, surplus generation on sunny days can saturate the grid. This can be managed by modernizing the grid to handle distributed solar power more effectively with load management and energy storage systems.
How does net metering work?
With net metering, any electricity your solar panels produce that isn't used to power your home is fed into your local power grid. Your utility company will pay you for this power production through credits that can be applied to your monthly energy bills.
Can you make money net metering?
You can reduce your power bills with net metering, using surplus solar generation to compensate for your consumption when you can't generate solar power at night and on cloudy days. However, most power companies will not pay you for surplus production once your power bill has dropped to $0. Normally, that credit will be rolled over, to be used in months where your solar panels are less productive.
On very rare occasions, you may be paid for the accumulated balance over a year. However, this benefit is offered by very few electric companies and is subject to limitations.
Not since the Civil War has an American presidential Inauguration Day been so fraught with fear and dread (on Feb. 23, 1861, Abraham Lincoln traveled to his inauguration under military guard, arriving in Washington, DC, in disguise). The incoming president is the most unpopular of any to assume office since modern polling began. In a single news cycle this past week he managed to alienate allies throughout an entire continent (Europe) during a brief break in a string of petulant tweets intended to persuade his own nation that Saturday Night Live is "not funny ... really bad television!"
Day One Agenda for #Trump Administration: Energy Deregulation https://t.co/fOLWjA5snd @ClimateNexus @350 @billmckibben @RobertKennedyJr @ewg— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1484922963.0
Much has been made of the new president's personality and psyche—his narcissism, his germophobia, his irritability, his minimal sleeping habits and his reported inability to laugh (though he does smile). In my view, the most revealing personal characteristic of president #45 may be his complete disconnection from the natural world. Here is an individual who grew up in a city, who sees land only in terms of profit potential, who proudly covers the tortured ground with high-rise buildings, who lives in a penthouse and who walks outdoors only on golf courses. One could make some similar comments about many of his recent predecessors (certainly not Teddy Roosevelt), but in this instance the tendency reaches an extreme.
How can a person so isolated from natural phenomena hope to understand the vulnerability of our planet's climate, water, air and innumerable species to the actions of people (one hastens to add—people much like himself)? How can he appreciate that civilization itself is an organism with a constant need for "food" (not just grain and meat, but energy, minerals and water as well), that is organized by way of hierarchically ordered and interlinked cycles and that is subject to natural limits and ultimately to death?
One could argue that all hubris is tied to human beings' illusion of dominance over nature. Our long withdrawal from wildness surely started with language, which gave us the ability to name and categorize and thus to psychically control and distance ourselves from what we named; it erupted into alienation with the advent of agriculture, cities and most recently fossil fuels. But we never stopped depending on the fabric of life in which we have always been entwined. Even as we unravel the ecosphere's delicate fibers, we draw upon eons of accumulated soil nutrients and minerals, fresh water and biodiversity.
Life implies death—one's own mortality above all. Everything has limits. Wisdom resides in the understanding that we are subject to forces we cannot control and that we must respect and accommodate ourselves to those forces. If we want to have language, farming, cities and energy, then we must make a deliberate cultural effort to maintain an attitude of individual and collective humility. In practical terms, that means keeping the size of our global population low enough so that it can be supported long-term without eroding natural systems, managing consumption so that resources are not depleted and non-biodegradable wastes do not accumulate and maintaining checks on wealth inequality.
How many Earths does it take? Productive global hectares (gha) per capita required for the current world population. Global Footprint Network
Obviously, we haven't been doing these things very well, especially in recent decades. The power of fossil fuels fed our collective megalomania. Like people in previous civilizations, we went out on a limb—but modern energy and technology enabled us to go much further than any humans had before. Still, as all civilizations do, ours has reached the point of diminishing returns, of over-reach. Before us lies the senescence and death of a way of living and of seeing the world. Perhaps the new president's qualities of character are emblematic of these final stages of cultural disintegration.
In the days to come, there will be plenty of opportunities for resistance, protest and, one hopes, celebration. Inauguration Day 2017 is a turning point; for me, it seems a perfect occasion for a walk in the woods.
I spent the last year working with co-author David Fridley and Post Carbon Institute staff on a just-published book, Our Renewable Future. The process was a pleasure: everyone involved (including the twenty or so experts we interviewed or consulted) was delightful to work with and I personally learned an enormous amount along the way. But we also encountered a prickly challenge in striking a tone that would inform but not alienate the book's potential
As just about everyone knows, there are gaping chasms separating the worldviews of fossil fuel promoters, nuclear power advocates and renewable energy supporters. But crucially, even among those who disdain fossils and nukes, there is a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between those who say that solar and wind power have unstoppable momentum and will eventually bring with them lower energy prices and millions of jobs and those who say these intermittent energy sources are inherently incapable of sustaining modern industrial societies and can make headway only with massive government subsidies.
We didn't set out to support or undermine either of the latter two messages. Instead, we wanted to see for ourselves what renewable energy sources are capable of doing and how the transition toward them is going. We did start with two assumptions of our own (based on prior research and analysis), about which we are perfectly frank: one way or another fossil fuels are on their way out and nuclear power is not a realistic substitute. That leaves renewable solar and wind, for better or worse, as society's primary future energy sources.
In our work on this project, we used only the best publicly available data and we explored as much of the relevant peer-reviewed literature as we could identify. But that required sorting and evaluation: Which data are important? And which studies are more credible and useful? Some researchers claim that solar PV electricity has an energy return on the energy invested in producing it (EROEI) of about 20:1, roughly on par with electricity from some fossil sources, while others peg that return figure at less than 3:1. This wide divergence in results of course has enormous implications for the ultimate economic viability of solar technology. Some studies say a full transition to renewable energy will be cheap and easy, while others say it will be extremely difficult or practically impossible. We tried to get at the assumptions that give rise to these competing claims, assertions and findings, and that lead either to renewables euphoria or gloom. We wanted to judge for ourselves whether those assumptions are realistic.
That's not the same as simply seeking a middle ground between optimism and pessimism. Renewable energy is a complicated subject and a fact-based, robust assessment of it should be honest and informative; its aim should be to start new and deeper conversations, not merely to shout down either criticism or boosterism.
Unfortunately, the debate is already quite polarized and politicized. As a result, realism and nuance may not have much of a constituency.
This is especially the case because our ultimate conclusion was that, while renewable energy can indeed power industrial societies, there is probably no credible future scenario in which humanity will maintain current levels of energy use (on either a per capita or total basis). Therefore current levels of resource extraction, industrial production and consumption are unlikely to be sustained—much less can they perpetually grow. Further, getting to an optimal all-renewable energy future will require hard work, investment, adaptation and innovation on a nearly unprecedented scale. We will be changing more than our energy sources; we'll be transforming both the ways we use energy and the amounts we use. Our ultimate success will depend on our ability to dramatically reduce energy demand in industrialized nations, shorten supply chains, electrify as much usage as possible and adapt to economic stasis at a lower overall level of energy and materials throughput. Absent widespread informed popular support, the political roadblocks to such a project will be overwhelming.
That's not what most people want to hear. And therefore, frankly, we need some help getting this analysis out to the sorts of people who might benefit from it. Post Carbon Institute's communications and media outreach capabilities are limited. Meanwhile the need for the energy transition is urgent and the longer it is delayed, the less desirable the outcome will be. It is no exaggeration to say that the transition from climate-damaging and depleting fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is the central cause of our times. And it will demand action from each and every one of us.
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If our transition to renewable energy is successful, we will achieve savings in the ongoing energy expenditures needed for economic production. We will be rewarded with a quality of life that is acceptable—and, perhaps, preferable to our current one (even though, for most Americans, material consumption will be scaled back from its current unsustainable level). We will have a much more stable climate than would otherwise be the case. And we will see greatly reduced health and environmental impacts from energy production activities.
But the transition will entail costs—not just money and regulation, but also changes in our behavior and expectations. It will probably take at least three or four decades and will fundamentally change the way we live.
Nobody knows how to accomplish the transition in detail, because this has never been done before. Most previous energy transitions were driven by opportunity, not policy. And they were usually additive, with new energy resources piling onto old ones (we still use firewood, even though we've added coal, hydro, oil, natural gas and nuclear to the mix).
Since the renewable energy revolution will require trading our currently dominant energy sources (fossil fuels) for alternative ones (mostly wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and biomass) that have different characteristics, there are likely to be some hefty challenges along the way.
Therefore, it makes sense to start with the low-hanging fruit and with a plan in place, then revise our plan frequently as we gain practical experience. Several organizations have already formulated plans for transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy. David Fridley, staff scientist of the energy analysis program at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and I have been working for the past few months to analyze and assess those plans and have a book in the works titled Our Renewable Future. Here's a very short summary, tailored mostly to the U.S., of what we've found.
Level One: The Easy Stuff
Nearly everyone agrees that the easiest way to kick-start the transition would be to replace coal with solar and wind power for electricity generation. That would require building lots of panels and turbines while regulating coal out of existence. Distributed generation and storage (rooftop solar panels with home- or business-scale battery packs) will help. Replacing natural gas will be harder, because gas-fired “peaking" plants are often used to buffer the intermittency of industrial-scale wind and solar inputs to the grid (see Level Two).
Electricity accounts for less than a quarter of all final energy used in the U.S. What about the rest of the energy we depend on? Since solar and wind produce electricity, it makes sense to electrify as much of our energy usage as we can. For example, we could heat and cool most buildings with electric air-source heat pumps, replacing natural gas- or oil-fueled furnaces. We could also begin switching out all our gas cooking stoves for electric stoves.
Transportation represents a large swath of energy consumption and personal automobiles account for most of that. We could reduce oil consumption substantially if we all drove electric cars (replacing 250 million gasoline-fueled automobiles will take time and money, but will eventually result in energy and financial savings). Promoting walking, bicycling and public transit will take much less time and investment.
Buildings will require substantial retrofitting for energy efficiency (this will again take time and investment, but will offer still more opportunities for savings). Building codes should be strengthened to require net-zero-energy or near-net-zero-energy performance for new construction. More energy-efficient appliances will also help.
The food system is a big energy consumer, with fossil fuels used in the manufacture of fertilizers, food processing and transportation. We could reduce a lot of that fuel consumption by increasing the market share of organic local foods. While we're at it, we could begin sequestering enormous amounts of atmospheric carbon in topsoil by promoting farming practices that build soil rather than deplete it—as is being done, for example, in the Marin Carbon Project.
If we got a good start in all these areas, we could achieve at least a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions in 10 to 20 years.
Level Two: The Harder Stuff
Solar and wind technologies have a drawback: They provide energy intermittently. When they become dominant in our overall energy mix, we will have to accommodate that intermittency in various ways. We'll need substantial amounts of grid-level energy storage as well as a major grid overhaul to get the electricity sector close to 100 percent renewables (replacing natural gas in electricity generation). We'll also need to start timing our energy usage to coincide with the availability of sunlight and wind energy. That in itself will present both technological and behavioral hurdles.
After we switch to electric cars, the rest of the transport sector will require longer-term and sometimes more expensive substitutions. We could reduce our need for cars (which require a lot of energy for their manufacture and decommissioning) by increasing the density of our cities and suburbs and reorienting them to public transit, bicycling and walking. We could electrify all motorized human transport by building more electrified public transit and intercity passenger rail lines. Heavy trucks could run on fuel cells, but it would be better to minimize trucking by expanding freight rail. Transport by ship could employ sails to increase fuel efficiency (this is already being done on a tiny scale by the MS Beluga Skysails, a commercial container cargo ship partially powered by a 1,700-square-foot, computer-controlled kite), but relocalization or deglobalization of manufacturing would be a necessary co-strategy to reduce the need for shipping.
Much of the manufacturing sector already runs on electricity, but there are exceptions—and some of these will offer significant challenges. Many raw materials for manufacturing processes either are fossil fuels (feedstocks for plastics and other petrochemical-based materials) or require fossil fuels for mining or transformation (e.g., most metals). Considerable effort will be needed to replace fossil-fuel-based industrial materials and to recycle non-renewable materials more completely, significantly reducing the need for mining.
If we did all these things, while also building far, far more solar panels and wind turbines, we could achieve roughly an 80 percent reduction in emissions compared to our current level.
Level Three: The Really Hard Stuff
Doing away with the last 20 percent of our current fossil-fuel consumption is going to take still more time, research and investment—as well as much more behavioral adaptation.
Just one example: We currently use enormous amounts of concrete for all kinds of construction. The crucial ingredient in concrete is cement. Cement-making requires high heat, which could theoretically be supplied by sunlight, electricity or hydrogen—but that will entail a nearly complete redesign of the process.
While with Level One we began a shift in food systems by promoting local organic food, driving carbon emissions down further will require finishing that job by making all food production organic and requiring all agriculture to build topsoil rather than deplete it. Eliminating all fossil fuels in food systems will also entail a substantial redesign of those systems to minimize processing, packaging and transport.
The communications sector—which uses mining and high-heat processes for the production of phones, computers, servers, wires, photo-optic cables, cell towers and more—presents some really knotty problems. The only good long-term solution in this sector is to make devices that are built to last a very long time and then to repair them and fully recycle and remanufacture them when absolutely needed. The Internet could be maintained via the kinds of low-tech, asynchronous networks now being pioneered in poor nations, using relatively little power. An example might be the AirJaldi networks in India, which provide Internet access to about 20,000 remote users in six states, using mostly solar power.
Back in the transport sector: We've already made shipping more efficient with sails, but doing away with petroleum altogether will require costly substitutes (fuel cells or biofuels). One way or another, global trade will have to shrink.
There is no good drop-in substitute for aviation fuels; we may have to write off aviation as anything but a specialty transport mode. Planes running on hydrogen or biofuels are an expensive possibility, as are dirigibles filled with (non-renewable) helium, any of which could help us maintain vestiges of air travel. Paving and repairing roads without oil-based asphalt is possible, but will require an almost complete redesign of processes and equipment.
Great attention will have to be given to the interdependent linkages and supply chains connecting various sectors (communications, mining and transport knit together most of what we do in industrial societies). Some links in supply chains will be hard to substitute and chains can be brittle: A problem with even one link can imperil the entire chain.
The good news is that if we do all these things, we can get beyond zero carbon emissions; that is, with sequestration of carbon in soils and forests, we could actually reduce atmospheric carbon with each passing year.
Doing Our Level Best
This plan features “levels;" the more obvious word choice would have been “stages." The latter implies a sequence—starting with Stage One, ending with Stage Three—yet accomplishing the energy transition quickly will require accelerating research and development to address many Level Two and Three issues at the same time we're moving rapidly forward on Level One tasks. For planning purposes, it's useful to know what can be done relatively quickly and cheaply and what will take long, expensive, sustained effort.
How much energy will be available to us at the end of the transition? It's hard to say, as there are many variables, including rates of investment and the capabilities of renewable energy technology without fossil fuels to back them up and to power their manufacture, at least in the early stages. This “how much" question reflects the understandable concern to maintain current levels of comfort and convenience as we switch energy sources. But in this regard, it is good to keep ecological footprint analysis in mind.
According to the Global Footprint Network's Living Planet Report 2014, the amount of productive land and sea available to each person on Earth in order to live in a way that's ecologically sustainable is 1.7 global hectares. The current per capita ecological footprint in the U.S. is 6.8 global hectares. Asking whether renewable energy could enable Americans to maintain their current lifestyle is therefore equivalent to asking whether renewable energy can keep us living unsustainably. The clear answer is: only temporarily, if at all. So why bother trying? We should aim for a sustainable level of energy and material consumption, which on average is significantly lower than at present.
One way or another, the energy transition will represent an enormous societal shift. During past shifts, there were winners and losers. In the current instance, if we don't pay great attention to equity issues, it is entirely possible that only the rich will have access to renewable energy and therefore, ultimately, to any substantial amounts of energy at all.
The collective weight of these challenges and opportunities suggests that a truly all-renewable economy may be very different from the American economy we know today. The renewable economy will likely be slower and more local; it will probably be a conserver economy rather than a consumer economy. It will also likely feature far less economic inequality. Economic growth may reverse itself as per capita consumption shrinks; if we are to avert a financial crash and perhaps a revolution as well, we may need a different economic organizing principle. In her recent book on climate change, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein asks whether capitalism can be preserved in the era of climate change. While it probably can (capitalism needs profit more than growth), that may not be a good idea because, in the absence of overall growth, profits for some will have to come at a cost to everyone else.
This short article only addresses the energy transition in the U.S.; other nations will face different challenges and opportunities. Poor nations will have to find ways to provide all their energy from renewable sources while advancing in terms of the U.N. Human Development Index. Nations especially vulnerable to sea level rise may have other immediate priorities to deal with. And nations with low populations but very large solar or wind resources may find themselves in an advantageous position if they are able to obtain foreign investment capital without too many strings attached.
The most important thing to understand about the energy transition is that it's not optional. Delay would be fatal. It's time to make a plan—however sketchy, however challenging—and run with it, revising it as we go.
The New York Times reports that “The United States and Europe kicked off a joint effort on Tuesday intended to curb Russia’s long-term ability to develop new oil resources.” The new sanctions would deny Russia access to western technology needed to access polar oil and deepwater oil, as well as tight oil produced by hydrofracturing and horizontal drilling.
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History is often made by strong personalities wielding bold new political, economic or religious doctrines. Yet any serious effort to understand how and why societies change requires examination not just of leaders and ideas, but also of environmental circumstances. The ecological context (climate, weather and the presence or absence of water, good soil and other resources) may either present or foreclose opportunities for those wanting to shake up the social world. This suggests that if you want to change society—or are interested in aiding or evaluating the efforts of others to do so—some understanding of exactly how environmental circumstances affect such efforts could be extremely helpful.
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Perhaps the most important key to grasping the relationship between the environment and processes of societal change was articulated by American anthropologist Marvin Harris (1927-2001). From the very beginning of efforts to systematically study human societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it had been clear that there were strong correlations between how societies obtain their food (whether by hunting and gathering, horticulture, agriculture, animal herding, or fishing), and their social structures and beliefs about the world. Hunter-gatherers typically live in small peripatetic bands, have an egalitarian social structure, and regard the natural world as full of supernatural powers and personalities that can be contacted or influenced by shamans. Farmers, on the other hand, stay in one place and produce seasonal surpluses that often end up subsidizing the formation of towns as well as classes of full-time specialists in various activities (metal-working, statecraft, soldiery, banking, record-keeping and so on); agricultural societies also tend to develop formalized religions presided over by a full-time, hierarchical priestly class. These systemic distinctions and similarities have held true on different continents and throughout centuries. Harris showed how shifts from one kind of food system to another were driven by environmental opportunity and necessity, and he refined his insights into an anthropological research strategy. 
Marvin Harris’s magnum opus was the rather difficult book Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture (1979). While he was perfectly capable of writing for the general public—others of his titles, like Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches (1974), and Cannibals and Kings (1977) were best-sellers—in Cultural Materialism, Harris was writing for fellow anthropologists. The book is full of technical jargon, and its author argues each point meticulously, presenting a surfeit of evidence. However, the kernel of Harris’s theoretical contribution can be summarized rather briefly.
All human societies consist of three interrelated spheres: first, the infrastructure,which comprises a society’s relations to its environment, including its modes of production and reproduction—think of this primarily as its ways of getting food, energy, and materials; second, the structure, which comprises a society’s economic, political, and social relations; and third, the superstructure, which consists of a society’s symbolic and ideational aspects, including its religions, arts, rituals, sports and games and science. Inevitably, these three spheres overlap, but they are also distinct, and it is literally impossible to find a human society that does not feature all three in some permutation.
For social change advocates, it’s what comes next that should agitate the neurons. Harris’s “cultural materialism”  argues for the principle of what he calls “probabilistic infrastructural determinism.” That is to say, the structure and superstructure of societies are always contested to one degree or another. Battles over distribution of wealth and over ideas are perennial, and they can have important consequences: life in the former East Germany was very different from life in West Germany, even though both were industrial nations operating under (what started out to be) nearly identical ecological conditions. However, truly radical societal change tends to be associated with shifts of infrastructure. When the basic relationship between a society and its ecosystem alters, people must reconfigure their political systems, economies and ideology accordingly, even if they were perfectly happy with the previous state of affairs.
Societies change their infrastructure out of necessity (for example, due to depletion of resources) or opportunity (usually the increased availability of resources, made available perhaps by migration to new territory or by the adoption of a new technology). The Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago represented a massive infrastructural shift, and the fossil-fueled Industrial Revolution 200 years ago had even greater and far more rapid impact. In both cases, population levels grew, political and economic relations evolved, and ideas about the world mutated profoundly.
Explaining the former example in a bit more detail may help illustrate the concept. Harris was an early adopter of the now-common view of the Agricultural Revolution as an adaptive response to environmental shifts at the end of the Pleistocene, a period of dramatic climate change. Glaciers were receding and species (especially big herbivorous prey animals such as mammoths and mastodons) faced extinction, with human predation hurrying that extinction process along. “In all centers of early agricultural activity,” writes Harris, “the end of the Pleistocene saw a notable broadening of the subsistence base to include more small mammals, reptiles, birds, mollusks and insects. Such ‘broad spectrum’ systems were a symptom of hard times. As the labor costs of the hunter-gatherer subsistence systems rose, and as the benefits fell, alternative sedentary modes of production became more attractive.”
Lifestyles based on cultivation took root and spread, and with them (eventually) came villages and chiefdoms. In certain places, the latter in turn mutated to produce the most radical social invention of all, the state.
The paleotechnic infrastructures most amendable to intensification, redistribution, and the expansion of managerial functions were those based on the grain and ruminant complexes of the Near and Middle East, southern Europe, northern China, and northern India. Unfortunately these were precisely the first systems to cross the threshold into statehood, and they therefore have never been directly observed by historians or ethnologists. Nonetheless, from the archaeological evidence of storehouses, monumental architecture, temples, high mounds and tells, defensive moats, walls, towers and the growth of irrigation systems, it is clear that managerial activities similar to those observed among surviving pre-state chiefdoms underwent rapid expansion in these critical regions immediately prior to the appearance of the state. Furthermore, there is abundant evidence from Roman encounters with “barbarians” in northern Europe, from Hebraic and Indian scriptures, and from Norse, Germanic and Celtic sagas that intensifier-redistributor-warriors and their priestly retainers constituted the nuclei of the first ruling classes in the Old World.
While I have omitted most of Harris’s detailed explanation, nevertheless we have here, in essence, an ecological explanation for the origin of civilization. What’s more, Harris is not merely proposing an entertaining “just-so” story, but a scientific hypothesis that is testable within the limits of available evidence.
Cultural materialism is capable of illuminating not just grand societal shifts, such as the origin of agriculture or the state, but the deeper functions of cultural institutions and practices of many sorts. Harris’s excellent textbook Cultural Anthropology (2000, 2007), co-authored with Orna Johnson,includes chapters with titles such as “Reproduction,” “Economic Organization,” “Domestic Life,” and “Class and Caste”; each features illustrative sidebars showing how a relevant cultural practice (peacemaking among the Mehinacu of central Brazil, polyandry among the Nyimba of Nepal) is adaptive to environmental necessity. Throughout this and all his books, indeed throughout his entire career, Harris aimed to show that probabilistic infrastructural determinism is the only sound basis for a true “science of culture” that is capable of producing testable hypotheses to explain why societies evolve the way they do.
Why is this important now? For the simple reason that our own society is on the cusp of an enormous infrastructural transformation. Which is remarkable, because we’re still reeling from the previous one, which began just a couple of centuries ago. The fossil-fueled Industrial Revolution entailed a shift from reliance on mostly renewable energy sources—firewood, field crops, some water power, wind for sails and animal muscle for traction—to cheaper, more controllable, more energy dense, and (in the case of oil) more portable non-renewable sources.
Oil has given us the ability to dramatically increase the rate at which we extract and transform Earth’s bounty (via mining machinery, tractors and powered fishing boats), as well as the ability to transport people and materials at high speed and at little cost. It and the other fossil fuels have also served as feedstocks for greatly expanded chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries, and have enabled a dramatic intensification of agricultural production while reducing the need for field labor. The results of fossil-fueling our infrastructure have included rapid population growth, the ballooning of the middle class, unprecedented levels of urbanization and the construction of a consumer economy. While elements of the Scientific Revolution were in place a couple of centuries prior to our adoption of fossil fuels, cheap fossil energy supplied a means of vastly expanding scientific research and applying it to the development of a broad range of technologies that are themselves directly or indirectly fossil-fueled. With heightened mobility, immigration increased greatly, and the democratic multi-ethnic nation state became the era’s emblematic political institution. As economies expanded almost continually due to the abundant availability of high-quality energy, neoliberal economic theory emerged as the world’s primary ideology of societal management. It soon evolved to incorporate several unchallenged though logically unsupportable notions, including the belief that economies can grow forever and the assumption that the entire natural world is merely a subset of the human economy.
Now, however, our still-new infrastructural regime based on fossil fuels is already showing signs of winding down. There are two main reasons. One is climate change: carbon dioxide, produced in the burning of fossil fuels, is creating a greenhouse effect that is warming the planet. The consequences will be somewhere between severe and cataclysmic. If we continue burning fossil fuels, we’re more likely to see a cataclysmic result, which could make continuation of industrial agriculture, and perhaps civilization itself, problematic. We do have the option to dramatically curtail fossil fuel consumption in order to avert catastrophic climate change. Either way, however, our current infrastructure will be a casualty.
The second big reason our fossil fuel-based infrastructure is endangered has to do with depletion. We’re not running out of coal, oil, or natural gas in the absolute sense, but we have extracted these non-renewable resources using the best-first, or low-hanging fruit, principle. With oil, the most strategically important of the fossil fuels (because of its centrality to transportation systems), we have already reached the point of diminishing returns. Compared to a decade ago, the global petroleum industry has more than doubled its rate of investment in exploration and production, while actual rates of global crude oil production have flat-lined. Costs of production are rising, and drillers are targeting geological formations that were formerly considered too problematic to bother with. With oil, the fate of the world’s economy appears to hang on the outcome of a race between technology and depletion: while industry spokespeople and media pundits tend to cheer new technology such as hydraulic fracturing, persistently high oil prices and soaring production costs suggest that depletion is in fact pulling ahead. Similar diminishing-returns limits with coal and natural gas production will likely be encountered within the next decade, both in the U.S. and the world as a whole.
At a bare minimum, climate change and fossil fuel depletion will force society to change to different energy sources, giving up reliance on energy-dense and controllable coal, oil and gas in favor of more diffuse and intermittent renewable sources like wind and solar. This in itself is likely to have enormous societal implications. While electric passenger cars running on power supplied by wind turbines and solar panels are feasible, electric airliners, container ships and 18-wheel trucks are not. Distributed electricity generation from renewables, together with a decline in global shipping and air transport, may favor less globalized and more localized patterns of economic and political organization.
However, we must also consider the strong likelihood that our looming, inevitable shift away from fossil fuels will entail a substantial reduction in the amount of useful energy available to society. Wind and sunlight are abundant and free, but the technology used to capture energy from these ambient sources is made from nonrenewable minerals and metals. The mining, manufacturing and transport activities necessary for the production and installation of wind turbines and solar panels currently require oil. It may theoretically be possible to replace oil with electricity from renewables in at least some of these processes, but for the foreseeable future wind and solar technologies can best be thought of as fossil fuel extenders.
Nuclear power, with its unbreakable reliance on mining and transport, is likewise a fossil fuel extender—but a far more dangerous one, given unsolved problems with accidents, nuclear proliferation, and waste storage. When the construction and decommissioning of power plants, and the mining and processing of uranium are all taken into account, nuclear power also offers a relatively low energy return on the energy invested (EROEI) in producing it.
Relatively low energy returns-on-investment from both nuclear and renewable energy sources may themselves result in societal change. The EROEI of fossil fuels was extremely high in comparison with that of energy sources previously available. This was a major factor in reducing the need for agricultural field labor, which in turn drove urbanization and the growth of the middle class. Some renewable sources of energy offer a better EROEI than firewood or agricultural crops, but none can compare with coal, oil and gas in their heyday. This suggests that the social consequences of the end of cheap fossil energy may include a partial re-ruralization of society and a shrinking of the middle class (the latter process is already beginning in the U.S.).
With less useful energy available, the global economy will fail to grow, and will likely enter a sustained period of contraction. Increased energy efficiency may cushion the impact but cannot avert it. With economies no longer growing, our current globally dominant neoliberal political-economic ideology may increasingly be called into question and eventually overthrown.
While energy is key to society’s infrastructure, other factors require consideration as well. Fossil fuels are depleting, but so are a host of additional important resources, including metals, minerals, topsoil and water. So far, we have made up for depletion in these cases by investing more energy in mining lower grade ores, by replacing soil nutrients with commercial fertilizers (many made from fossil fuels), and by transporting water, food and other goods from places of local abundance to regions in which those materials are scarce. This strategy has increased the human carrying capacity of our planet, but it is a strategy that may not work much longer as energy itself becomes scarcer.
Further alterations in the links between the environment and society will arise from climate change. Even assuming that nations undertake dramatic reductions in carbon emissions soon, cumulative past emissions virtually guarantee continued and increasing impacts that will include rising sea levels and worsening droughts and floods. By mid-century, hundreds of millions of climate refugees may be in search of secure habitat.
There are optimistic ways of viewing the future, based on assumptions that fossil fuels are in fact abundant and will last another century or more, that new nuclear power technologies will be more viable than current ones, that renewable energy sources can be scaled up quickly, and that likely impacts of climate change have been overestimated. Even if one or more of these assumptions turns out to be correct, however, the evidence of declining returns on energy and financial investments in oil extraction cannot be disregarded. An infrastructure shift is underway.
Considering oil’s role in industrial agriculture, this shift will undoubtedly and profoundly impact our food system—and food (which is our most basic energy source, from a biological perspective) is at the core of every society’s infrastructure. Whether or not optimistic assumptions are valid, we probably face an infrastructural transformation at least as significant as the Industrial Revolution.
But the error bars on energy supplies and climate sensitivity include more pessimistic possibilities. Once useful fossil energy supply rates begin to falter, this could trigger an unwinding of the global financial system as well as international conflict. It is also possible that the relationship between carbon emissions and atmospheric temperatures is non-linear, with Earth’s climate system subject to self-reinforcing feedbacks that could result in a massive die-off of species, our own included.
Choose your assumptions—optimistic, pessimistic, or somewhere in between. In any case, this is a big deal.
We are living at a historic moment when the structure of society (economic and political systems) and its superstructure (ideologies) are about to be challenged perhaps as never before. When infrastructure changes, what seemingly was solid melts into air, paradigms fall, and institutions crumble, until a new societal regime emerges. Think of a caterpillar pupating, its organ systems evidently being reduced to undifferentiated protoplasm before reorganizing themselves into the features of a butterfly. What a perfect opportunity for an idealist intent on changing the world!
Indeed, fault lines are already appearing throughout society. From a cultural materialist point of view, the most important of these relate to how the inevitable infrastructure change will occur. Proponents of distributed renewable energy sources are the underdogs, and the defenders of centralized, fossil energy systems the incumbents in deepening disputes over subsidies and other elements of government energy policy. Meanwhile, grassroots opposition to extreme fossil fuel extraction methods is springing up everywhere that companies are fracking for oil and gas, drilling in deepwater, mining tar sands, or blasting mountaintops to mine coal. Opposition to an oil pipeline is fueling one of the hottest political fires in Washington D.C. And concern about climate change has acquired an intergenerational dimension, as young people across America sue state governments and federal agencies for failing to develop climate action plans. Young people, after all, are the ones who will most forcibly face the consequences of climate change, and their attitude toward older generations may not be forgiving.
We are also seeing increasing conflict over the structure of society—its systems of economic distribution and political decision-making. As economic growth grinds to a halt, the world’s wealthy investor class is seeking to guarantee its solvency and maintain its profits by shifting costs onto the general public via bailouts, austerity measures and quantitative easing (which lowers interest rates, flushing money out of savings accounts and into the stock market). Jobs downsize and wages fall, but the number of billionaires billows. However, rising economic inequality has its own political costs, as documented in Amazon’s recent best-selling book, a 700-page tome called Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which unfortunately fails to grasp the infrastructural shift that is upon us or its implications for economy and society. Polls show rising dissatisfaction with political leaders and parties throughout the West. But in most countries there is no organized opposition group poised to take advantage of this widespread discontent. Instead, political and economic institutions are themselves losing legitimacy.
Infrastructural tremors are also reverberating throughout international geopolitics. The world’s dominant superpower, which attained its status during the twentieth century at least partly because it was the home of the global oil industry, is now quickly losing diplomatic clout and military “credibility” as the result of a series of disastrous miscalculations and blunders, including its invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Coal-fueled China is just now becoming world’s largest economy, though it and other second-tier nations (UK, Germany, Russia) are themselves beset with intractable and growing economic contradictions, pollution dilemmas or resource limits.
Society’s superstructure is also subject to deepening rupture, with neoliberalism coming under increasing criticism, especially since 2008. However, there is a more subtle and pervasive (and therefore potentially even more potent) superstructure to modern society, one largely taken for granted and seldom named or discussed, and it is likewise under assault. Essayist John Michael Greer calls this “the civil religion of progress.” As Greer has written, the idea of progress has quietly become the central article of faith of the modern industrial world, more universally held than the doctrine of any organized religion. The notion that “history has a direction, and it has to make cumulative progress in that direction” has been common to both capitalist and communist societies during the past century. But what will happen to that “religious” conviction as the economy shrinks, technology fails, population declines and inventors fail to come up with ways of managing society’s multiplying crises? More to the point, how will billions of fragile human psyches adjust to seeing their most cherished creed battered repeatedly upon the shoals of reality? And what new faith will replace it? Greer suggests that it will be one that re-connects humanity with nature, though its exact form is yet to reveal itself.
All of these trends are in their very earliest phases. As infrastructure actually shifts—as fuels deplete, as weather extremes worsen—tiny cracks in the edifice of business-as-usual will become unbridgeable chasms.
Here’s my last big take-away message for would-be social changers: only ideas, demonstration projects and policy proposals that fit our emerging infrastructure will have genuine usefulness or staying power. How can you know if your idea fits the emerging infrastructure? There’s no hard and fast rule, but your idea stands a good chance if it assumes we are moving toward a societal regime with less energy and less transport (and that is therefore more localized); if it can work in a world where climate is changing and weather conditions are extreme and unpredictable; if it provides a way to sequester carbon rather than releasing more into the atmosphere; and if it helps people meet their basic needs during hard times.
It’s fairly easy to identify elements of our society’s existing structure and superstructure that won’t work with the infrastructure toward which we appear to be headed. Consumerism and corporatism are two big ones; these were twentieth century adaptations to cheap, abundant energy. They justifiably have been the objects of a great deal of activist opposition in recent decades. There were reforms or alternatives to consumerism and corporatism that could have worked within our industrial infrastructure regime (or that did work in some places, not others): European-style industrial socialism is the primary example, though that might be thought of as a magnetic hub for a host of idealistic proposals championed by thousands, maybe even millions of would-be world-changers. But industrial socialism is arguably just as thoroughly dependent on fossil-fueled infrastructure as corporatism and consumerism. To the extent that it is, activists who are married to an industrial-socialist vision of an ideal world may be wasting many of their efforts needlessly.
Historic examples offer useful ways of grounding social proposals. In the current context, it is important to remember that almost all of human history took place in a pre-industrial, “pre-progress” context, so it should be fairly easy to differentiate desirable from undesirable societal adaptations to analogous challenges in past eras. For example, anarchist philosopher and evolutionary biologist Peter Kropotkin, in his book Mutual Aid, praised medieval European cities as sites of autonomy and creativity—though the period during which they flourished is often thought of as a “dark age.”
There are plenty of activist projects underway now that appear thoroughly aligned with the post-fossil fuel infrastructure toward which we are headed, including Permaculture cooperatives, ecovillages, local food campaigns, and Transition Initiatives. Relevant new economic trends include the collaborative economy, the sharing economy, collaborative consumption, distributed production, P2P finance and the open source and open knowledge movements. While some of the latter merely constitute new business models that appear to spring from web-based technologies and social media, their attractiveness may partly derive from a broadly shared cultural sense that the centralized systems of production and consumption characteristic of the twentieth century are simply no longer viable, and must give way to more horizontal, distributed networks. The list of existing ideas and projects that could help society adapt in a post-fossil fuel era is long. Plenty of people have sensed the direction of global change and come to their own sensible conclusions about what to do, without any awareness of Harris’s cultural materialism. But such awareness could help at the margins by reducing wasted effort.
Do you want to change the world? More power to you. Start by identifying your core values—fairness, peace, stability, beauty, resilience, whatever. That’s up to you. Figure out what ideas, projects, proposals or policies further those values, but also fit with the infrastructure that’s almost certainly headed our way. Then get to work. There’s plenty to do, and lots at stake.
 The simple observation that human culture is adaptive to environmental conditions is revelatory: Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel) has based a career on it, though he consistently fails to credit Harris—who was earlier and more thorough. Harris himself was careful to cite predecessors upon whose work he was building, including Karl Marx.
 The term materialism is loaded with connotations that distract from the issues at hand. In Marvin Harris’s usage, the word refers merely to a way of thinking that assumes material effects are due to material causes. When I was teaching a college program on sustainability, I suggested to my students that they think of probabilistic infrastructural determinism as “cultural ecology.” I knew this was somewhat inaccurate, as cultural ecology is a school of anthropological thought closely related to, but distinct from, cultural materialism. However, many students simply couldn’t get past the word materialism: for them, this was an irremediably distasteful term associated both with the negation of spirituality and with the American mania for buying and consuming corporate products.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has just released a new special report called World Energy Investment Outlook that should send policy makers screaming and running for the exits—if they are willing to read between the lines and view the report in the context of current financial and geopolitical trends. This is how the press agency UPI begins its summary:
It will require $48 trillion in investments through 2035 to meet the world’s growing energy needs, the International Energy Agency said Tuesday from Paris. IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said in a statement the reliability and sustainability of future energy supplies depends on a high level of investment. “But this won’t materialize unless there are credible policy frameworks in place as well as stable access to long-term sources of finance,” she said. “Neither of these conditions should be taken for granted.”
Here’s a bit of context missing from the IEA report: the oil industry is actually cutting back on upstream investment. Why? Global oil prices—which, at the current $90 to $110 per barrel range, are at historically high levels—are nevertheless too low to justify tackling ever-more challenging geology. The industry needs an oil price of at least $120 per barrel to fund exploration in the Arctic and in some ultra-deepwater plays. And let us not forget: current interest rates are ultra-low (thanks to the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing), so marshalling investment capital should be about as easy now as it is ever likely to get. If QE ends and if interest rates rise, the ability of industry and governments to dramatically increase investment in future energy production capacity will wane.
I’ve been giving lectures on Peak Oil for over a decade now, and always look forward to the question period after the main show. It’s an opportunity to interact with the audience, and to see where my presentation may need tweaking or where my thinking may be shallow or incorrect.
Now Post Carbon Institute is offering a tool to help others who wish to give presentations about our global sustainability crisis—a beautiful PowerPoint called “YOU ARE HERE: The Oil Journey,” featuring a script and images that are geared to a general audience with little prior understanding of the issue. Presenters of “YOU ARE HERE” are likely to be bombarded by a lot of the same questions I’ve heard over the years, so I thought it might be helpful if I compiled some of those.
Here are the top 11, along with brief sample replies and some resources for further reading.
1. But what about natural gas? I’ve heard we had a 100 year supply. Can’t we use natural gas in place of oil? Won’t natural gas be a good “bridge fuel” to get us to a green, growing energy economy?
A: Actually, U.S. proven reserves of natural gas amount to only about 12 years’ worth of supply. More gas resources will no doubt be discovered, thus adding to those reserves, but most of the new sources will be in “tight” shale deposits, where production costs and depletion rates are high. Currently there is a shale gas supply glut due to very high rates of drilling a few years ago, when natural gas prices were several times their current level. But now that gas is so cheap, the producers that specialize in shale “fracking” are actually losing money; therefore they’re cutting back on drilling. In a year or two we will see declining production and higher prices. Bottom line—while it’s true that new technology has increased natural gas supplies over the short term, the long-term outlook is more complicated. Natural gas is a depleting fossil fuel, and technology cannot change that fundamental fact. Natural gas will not substitute in any meaningful way for increasingly expensive oil, because very few vehicles currently are able to use natural gas and it will take decades to change that situation—and gas supplies won’t be sufficient even if we could retrofit existing vehicles fast enough. Moreover, the climate impact of producing and burning gas from shale deposits is no better than that of mining and burning coal—so the environmental argument for using more natural gas doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Further reading: Will Natural Gas Fuel America in the 21st Century?
2. I’ve read about the extraordinary potential for “tight oil”—petroleum trapped in low-porosity rocks like shale, that’s produced by hydrofracturing and horizontal drilling. Apparently so much of this is coming from North Dakota now that it’s causing total U.S. oil production to increase. Some people are even saying that America could be oil independent within a few years.
A: Yes, tight oil production in North Dakota is booming—but why? Geologists have known about the Bakken oil deposits for a long time, and have had the technology to get the oil out of the ground. But costs of extraction were too high to justify drilling. Now that rates of global crude oil production are stagnant, oil prices are very high—and that makes production of marginal sources like tight oil economically viable. And that in turn means continued production from these sources depends upon continued high oil prices: if the price level falls, production will slow. Several analysts have described recent claims for reserves and potential production rates from tight oil plays as overoptimistic. A realistic forecast shows U.S. crude oil production continuing to increase for the next decade (as a result of additional tight oil and deepwater production), but then resuming its decline. In this most-likely-case scenario, U.S. crude oil production in 2020 will not come close to matching the peak it achieved in 1970. Unless Americans reduce their oil consumption significantly, the nation will still be hooked on imports.
3. What about coal? I heard we have a 250-year supply. Won’t coal keep our economy growing, even if the environmental consequences are awful?
A: Several recent studies (including ones by the U.S. Geological Survey) have concluded that coal supplies for the U.S. and the world as a whole have been exaggerated. Enormous amounts of coal exist, but the great majority of it is unlikely ever to be mined because of its depth, the insufficient thickness of seams, and the quality of the resource. As with other fossil fuels, we have already picked the low-hanging fruit. Two recent studies conclude that global coal output could peak within the next decade or so. Meanwhile, as China’s consumption grows (that country now uses 4 billion tons per year, fully half the world’s production), coal prices are set to increase substantially even in countries that are self-sufficient in supply, like the U.S.
Further reading: Richard Heinberg, Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis, Introduction and Chapter 8; Heinberg and Fridley, “The End of Cheap Coal,” Nature, Vol. 468, November 18, 2010
4. Then what about nuclear? Couldn’t modular/thorium/breeder reactors power the world for centuries?
A: Too expensive and too risky. A detailed report in a recent issue of The Economist magazine—not known for an anti-nuclear stance—called nuclear power “the dream that failed,” and concluded that its role in the foreseeable world energy picture will never be more than marginal. The ongoing nuclear catastrophe in Japan has led that country to abandon nuclear power, and Germany is following suit. Even though China appears to be doubling down on its nuclear bets, from a global perspective the industry is essentially moribund.
Further reading: The Economist, Special Report, Nuclear Energy: The Dream that Failed, March 10-16, 2012; Tom Murphy, Nuclear Options
5. Isn’t the real problem human population? What’s a truly sustainable human population? Won’t there be a huge die-off?
A: Yes, population is a vitally important issue. Population growth exacerbates every problem facing us. As the global economy stagnates or contracts, declines in per-capita output can be reduced by policies to rein in population growth. Moreover, a good argument can be made that family planning investments will benefit the poorest nations first and foremost, since large, poor families tend to spend all their income on food and shelter, leaving no surplus for education or the formation of a small business. But while good population policy is desperately needed, it is no cure-all: changing demographic trends is a slow process, and many of the challenges facing us will converge over the course of the next couple of decades—far too quickly to be adequately addressed by reducing birth rates. So we need to think systemically to address a range of economic and ecological issues simultaneously while doing our best to support seven billion humans and counting.
Further reading: Bill Ryerson, Population: the Multiplier of Everything Else, in Heinberg and Lerch (eds.), The Post Carbon Reader.
6. When I think about all of these challenges, I just get overwhelmed. Where do we go for hope?
A: First, address your mental state. If you’re emotionally overwhelmed by information about climate change and resource depletion, you may need to ration your news intake so as to increase your effectiveness at helping tackle these enormous global problems. Spending hours a day in front of a computer screen feeds depression. Take time off, go outdoors, do some gardening, and interact with other people face-to-face. You will probably find inspiration in community resilience-building projects, where you can see and touch the results of your and your friends’ efforts. Cultivate a creative hobby and spend time in nature. Your efforts to save the world will be far more effective if other people perceive your mental and emotional state as being grounded and balanced. That doesn’t mean you should deny and suppress the pain and fear that any healthy human inevitably feels when contemplating the fix we’re in. Allow yourself to feel those emotions (otherwise you’ll be detached and inauthentic at best, unhinged at worst), but don’t wallow.
Further reading: Kathy McMahon, The Survival Mindset; Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities
7. I’ve been thinking this way for years. The problem is all those people who don’t “get it.” How do we convince them?
A: I wish I had a sure-fire answer to that one. Sometimes simple persistence pays off. If people have dug themselves into a certain worldview, it may take time for them to change their views. It’s important for you to have the facts at your command, but it’s just as important to create “frames,” as George Lakoff calls them—stories that make sense of the data. Often simple metaphors, such as “low-hanging fruit,” help people grasp the essential character of situations that might otherwise require lengthy explanation. It’s also important to tailor the message to the audience: if you understand where other people are coming from, it’s much easier to connect with them. Unfortunately, there are many people who are completely invested in maintaining a cornucopian view of the world, and there may be no way of reaching those people. Don’t waste your time on them; focus your attention on people who can be educated.
Further reading: George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant!; Andrée Zaleska, How to Talk to Your Friends about Climate Change, ; Kurt Cobb, Peak Oil and Four Principles of PR; Peak Oil and Mass Communication
8. Isn’t the real problem one of distribution? If wealthy Americans didn’t consume so much, there’d be enough for everyone. Similarly, if the “one percent” weren’t siphoning all the world’s wealth, we’d all be doing fine. Shouldn’t we just be fighting for fairness?
A: As long as our economy is set up in such a way that it requires continued growth in order to function, then even if we distribute wealth fairly we will hit resource limits and fail. That’s not to say that equity is unimportant. As the national and global economy inevitably shift from growth to contraction, more equitable distribution will be necessary if we are to maintain social stability. If distribution of wealth becomes even more inequitable (and that’s the current trend), people will rightly conclude that the system is unfair and not worth saving. They will rebel, and governments will crack down brutally to maintain the status quo. The result will be a chaotic, violent collapse of the entire system. It doesn’t have to end this way. If wealth is more evenly distributed as a result of reform, and if everyone is encouraged to understand the challenge facing us, then people can be persuaded to make shared sacrifices in order to build an economy that fits within Earth’s limits.
Further reading: Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone; Cecile Andrews, Everyone Is a Victim of Inequality
9. Aren’t the oil and car companies sitting on patents for free energy devices or carburetors that get 100 mpg? Can’t we solve our energy problems just by defeating these evil corporations?
A: I’ve heard stories about suppressed energy technologies, but have been unable to verify them. Typically the stories entail oil or car companies buying up patents and hiding them, but every patent ever issued in the U.S. is freely searchable, so it should be easy enough to find these “suppressed” inventions. On the other hand, many machines that have been patented don’t actually work, and that’s why they haven’t been commercialized. Now, it’s true that the automobile industry actively discouraged the development of new safety features, including seat belts, and also lobbied Congress for decades to delay energy-efficiency regulations. Moreover, the oil companies have spent enormous sums in efforts to distort and mute both the scientific research and the public discussion regarding climate change. Such corporate abuses must be brought to an end, and I support activist efforts to do that. However, even if they succeed, that won’t solve the basic problem: we’ve become addicted to energy sources that are unsustainable, and there are no “silver bullet” alternatives that will enable us to maintain economic growth such as we’ve seen over the past century.
Further reading: Rob Hopkins, Film Review: Why ‘Thrive’ is Best Avoided
10. The problems seem so huge, the solutions so small. How can little efforts like Transition Towns hope to deal with war, resource depletion, and climate change, if national governments can’t?
A: There are two answers to that question. First: We have to do what we can. Yes, fundamental national and international reforms are needed to deal with global problems like climate change and resource depletion, and activist efforts to address those issues are needed now more than ever. But we are seeing a general deterioration in the ability of our national political system to respond both to converging global problems and to the public’s concerns. Reforming our own national government is a big, multi-decade job, if it’s even possible to accomplish. Our economic and environmental problems will not remain on hold while we put the country’s political system in order, so we have to accomplish what we can where we have more leverage—at the local level. Second: There are good reasons for working at locally anyway, regardless of difficulties in achieving national and international reforms. Localization is inevitable as transport fuels become more scarce and expensive. If we don’t increase local self-sufficiency proactively, the reversal of globalization will result in the collapse of essential support systems—so building local food systems should be our first priority. Also, local organizing creates the necessary basis for political, social, and economic change at higher levels.
11. Innovation has solved problems and opened opportunities for us in the past. Why would you think that innovation can’t solve all our problems now? Don’t we just need to put more money into research?
A: Innovation will be essential to our adaptation to our new economic reality. Some new technologies (such as renewable energy and ways to use energy and resources more efficiently) will need to expand significantly. But every technology has its costs. Economies cannot grow forever, even if they are based on renewable energy. We must adjust to the fact that our own civilization has reached limits with regard to population, water, soil, raw materials and energy. In the end, our adaptation will require as much social innovation as technological change, as we learn to live with less, and to live more equitably.
Further reading: Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality, Chapter 4.
Every activist engaged in combating human-caused climate change or specific elements of the current energy economy knows that the work is primarily oppositional. It could hardly be otherwise. For citizens who care about ecological integrity, a sustainable economy and the health of nature and people, there is plenty to oppose—biomass logging in Massachusetts, mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia, natural gas drilling in Wyoming, poorly sited solar developments in California, river-killing dams in Chile and Brazil, and new nuclear and coal plants around the globe.
These and many other fights against destructive energy projects are crucial, but they can be draining and tend to focus the conversation in negative terms. Sometimes it’s useful to reframe the discourse about ecological limits and economic restructuring in positive terms, that is, about what we’re for. The following list is not comprehensive, but beauty and biodiversity are fundamentals that the energy economy must not diminish. And energy literacy, conservation, relocalization of economic systems, and family planning are necessary tools to achieve our vision of a day when resilient human communities are imbedded in healthy ecosystems, and all members of the land community have space enough to flourish.
Energy is arguably the most decisive factor in both ecosystems and human economies. It is the fulcrum of history, the enabler of all that we do. Yet few people have more than the sketchiest understanding of how energy makes the world go ’round.
Basic energy literacy consists of a familiarity with the laws of thermodynamics, and with the concepts of energy density and energy returned on energy invested (EROEI). It requires a familiarity with the costs and benefits of our various energy sources—including oil, coal, gas, nuclear, wind and solar. It also implies numeracy—the ability to meaningfully compare numbers referring to quantities of energy and rates of use, so as to be able to evaluate matters of scale.
Without energy literacy, citizens and policy makers are at the mercy of interest groups wanting to sell us their vision of the future energy economy. We hear from the fossil fuel industry, for example, that Canada’s oil reserves (in the form of “tar sands”) are second only to Saudi Arabia’s, or that the U.S. has more than 100 years of natural gas thanks to newly tapped “shale gas” resources. And it’s tempting to conclude (as many people do) that there are no real constraints to national fossil fuel supplies other than environmental regulations preventing the exploitation of our immense natural treasures.
On the other end of the spectrum, we hear from techno-optimists that, with the right mix of innovative energy generation and efficiency technologies, we can run the growth economy on wind, solar, hydropower and biofuels. And it’s tempting to conclude that we only need better government incentives and targeted regulatory reform to open the floodgates to a “green” high-tech sustainable future.
Energy literacy arms us with the intellectual tools to ask the right questions—What is the energy density of these new fossil fuel resources? How much energy will have to be invested to produce each energy unit of synthetic crude oil from oil shale, or electricity from thin-film solar panels? How quickly can these energy sources be brought online, and at what rate can they realistically deliver energy to consumers? When we do ask such questions, the situation suddenly looks very different. We realize that the new fossil fuels are actually third-rate energy sources that require immense and risky investments and may never be produced at a significant scale. We find that renewable energy technologies face their own serious constraints in energy and materials needs, and that transitioning to a majority-renewable energy economy would require a phenomenal re-tooling of our energy and transportation infrastructure.
With energy literacy, citizens and policy makers have a basis for sound decisions. Householders can measure how much energy they use and strategize to obtain the most useful services from the smallest energy input. Cities, states and nations can invest wisely in infrastructure both to produce and use energy with greatest efficiency and with minimal damage to the natural world. With energy literacy, we can undertake a serious, clear-eyed societal conversation about the policies and actions needed to reshape our energy system.
The current energy economy is toxic not simply because of its dependence on climate-altering fossil fuels, but also because of its massive scale and wastefulness. A first step toward reducing its global impacts is simply using less energy, a goal readily accomplished through conservation practices that are widely available and cost effective.
Energy conservation consists of two distinct strategies—efficiency and curtailment. Energy efficiency means using less energy to produce a similar or better service. For example, we can exchange old incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescents or LEDs that use a fraction of the electricity and still enjoy satisfactory levels of indoor illumination.
Curtailment means exactly what you’d think—cutting out a use of energy altogether. In our previous example of indoor lighting, this strategy might take the form of turning off the lights when we leave a room.
Efficiency is typically more attractive to people because it doesn’t require them to change their behavior. We want services that energy provides us, not energy per se, and if we can still have all the services we want, then who cares if we’re using less energy to get them? Much has been achieved with energy efficiency efforts over recent decades, but much more remains to be done—nearly all existing buildings need to be better insulated, and most electric power plants are operating at comparatively dismal efficiencies, to mention just two examples.
Unfortunately, increasing investments in energy efficiency typically yield diminishing returns. Initial improvements tend to be easy and cheap; later ones are more costly. Sometimes the energy costs of retooling or replacing equipment and infrastructure wipe out gains from efficiency. Nevertheless, the early steps toward efficiency are almost always rewarding.
While curtailment of energy use is a less inviting idea, it offers clearer savings as compared with improved efficiency. By simply driving fewer miles we unequivocally save energy, whether our car is a more or less efficient model. We’ve gotten used to using electricity and fuels to do many things that can be done by well enough with muscle power, or that don’t need doing at all.
Conservation helps us appreciate the energy we use. It fosters respect for resources, and for the energy and labor that are embodied in manufactured products. It reduces damage to already stressed ecosystems and helps us focus our attention on dimensions of life other than sheer consumption.
During the latter decades of the 20th century, most Americans achieved a standard of living that was lavish from both historical and cross-cultural perspectives. They were coaxed and cajoled from cradle to grave by expensive advertising to consume as much as possible. Simply by reversing the message of this incessant propaganda stream, people can be persuaded to happily make do with less—as occurred during World War II, when fuels were rationed and billboards promoted recycling.
Many social scientists claim that our consumptive lifestyle damages communities, families and individual self-esteem. A national or global ethic of conservation could even be socially therapeutic.
Resilience is “the capacity of a system to withstand disturbance while still retaining its fundamental structure, function and internal feedbacks.” Resilience contrasts with brittleness—the tendency to shatter and lose functionality when impacted or perturbed.
Ecologists who study resilience in natural systems have noted that ecosystems tend to progress through a series of phases—growth, consolidation and conservation, release (or “collapse”), and reorganization. Each turning of this adaptive cycle provides opportunities for individual species and whole systems to innovate in response to external and internal change (i.e., disturbance). Resilient ecosystems (in the early growth phase) are characterized by species diversity; many of the organisms within such systems are flexible generalists, and the system as a whole contains multiple redundancies. In contrast, less-resilient ecosystems tend to be more brittle, showing less diversity and greater specialization particularly in the consolidation phase.
Resilience can be applied to human systems as well. Our economic systems, in particular, often face a trade-off between resilience and efficiency. Economic efficiency implies specialization and the elimination of both inventories and redundancy (which typically guarantee greater resilience). If a product can be made most cheaply in one region or nation, manufacturing is concentrated there, reducing costs to both producers and consumers. However, if that nation were to suddenly find it impossible to make or ship the product, that product would become unavailable everywhere. Maintaining dispersed production and local inventories promotes availability under crisis conditions, though at the sacrifice of economic efficiency (and profits) in “normal” times.
From a resilience perspective one of the most vulnerable human systems today is the American transportation system. For over seventy years we’ve built trillions of dollars of transportation infrastructure that is completely dependent (i.e., “specialized”) on affordable petroleum fuels, and we’ve removed or neglected most alternative methods of transport. As petroleum fuels become less affordable, the effects reverberate throughout the system.
Resilience becomes more of a priority during periods of crisis and volatility, such as the world is experiencing today. Households, towns and regions are better prepared to endure a natural disaster such as a flood or earthquake if they have stores of food and water on hand and if their members have a range of practical self-sufficiency skills.
While the loss of economic efficiency implies trade-offs, resilience brings incidental benefits. With increased local self-sufficiency comes a shared sense of confidence in the community’s ability to adapt and endure. For the foreseeable future, as global energy, finance and transport systems become less reliable, the re-balancing of community priorities should generally weigh in favor of resilience.
A central strategy needed to increase societal resilience is localization—or, perhaps more accurately, re-localization. Most pre-industrial human societies produced basic necessities locally. Trade typically centered on easily transportable luxury goods. Crop failures and other disasters therefore tended to be limited in scope—if one town was devastated, others were spared because they had their own regional sources—and stores—of necessities.
Economic globalization may have begun centuries ago with the European colonization of the rest of the world, but really took hold during the past half-century with the advent of satellite communications and container ships. The goal was to maximize economic growth by exploiting efficiency gains from local specialization and global transport. In addition to driving down labor costs and yielding profits for international corporations, globalization maximized resource depletion and pollution, simplified ecosystems and eroded local systems resilience.
As transport fuel becomes less affordable, a return to a more localized economic order is likely, if not inevitable. The market’s methods of re-balancing economic organization, however, could well be brutal as global transport networks become less reliable, transport costs increase, and regions adapt to less access to goods now produced thousands of miles away.
Government planning and leadership could result in a more organized and less chaotic path of adaptation. Nations can begin now to prioritize and create incentives for the local production of food, energy and manufactured products, and the local development of currency, governance, and culture.
Natural ecological boundaries—such as watersheds—bordered traditional societies. Bioregions defined by waterways and mountain ridges could thus become the basis for future re-localized economic and political organization.
Deliberate efforts to re-localize economies will succeed best if the benefits of localism are touted and maximized. With decentralized political organization comes greater opportunity for participation in decision-making. Regional economic organization offers a wide variety of productive local jobs. Society assumes a human scale in which individuals have a sense of being able to understand and influence the systems that govern their lives. People in locally organized societies see the immediate consequences of their production and waste disposal practices, and are therefore less likely to adopt an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude toward resource depletion and pollution. Local economic organization tends to yield art, music, stories and literature that reflect the ecological uniqueness of place—and local culture in turn binds together individuals, families and communities, fostering a sense of responsibility to care for one another and for the land.
The human demographic explosion, amplified by rapacious consumption in the overdeveloped world, is at the root of the global eco-social crisis. Virtually every environmental and social problem is worsened by overpopulation. With more mouths to feed—and freshwater becoming scarcer and topsoil eroding—global famine becomes an ever-greater likelihood. An expanding population leads to increased consumption of just about every significant resource, and thus to increasing rates of ecological damage, from deforestation to climate change.
Family planning helps avert those threats. If we want future generations to enjoy a healthy planet with wild spaces, biodiversity, abundant resources, and a livable climate, we should reduce fertility now.
But family planning can do more than mitigate future resource depletion; it has direct and in some cases nearly immediate benefits. Some of those benefits are economic. For example, Ireland’s declining birth rate in the 1970s is often credited as one of the factors leading to its economic boom in the ’80s and ’90s. China’s one-child policy similarly contributed to its economic ascendancy. The mechanism? In poor societies where family size is typically large, all household income must go toward food and shelter, and none is left over for education and business formation. If the birth rate is reduced, household income is freed up to improve quality of life and economic prospects for the next generation.
Without access to contraceptives, the average woman would have 12 to 15 pregnancies in her lifetime. In contrast, women in industrial nations want, on average, only two children.
It turns out that when women are economically and, this is critical, culturally empowered to make decisions about their own fertility, the result is improved health for mother and children, fewer unplanned pregnancies and births, and reduced incidence of abortion. Numerous studies have shown that women who have control over their fertility also tend to have more educational and employment opportunities, enhancing their social and economic status and improving the well-being of their families.
Discussions about energy rarely focus on beauty. But the presence or absence of this ineffable quality offers us continual clues as to whether or not society is on a regenerative and sustainable path, or on the road to further degradation of nature’s integrity.
From the time of the earliest cave paintings, human ideals of beauty have been drawn from nature. Animals, plants, rivers, oceans and mountains all tend to trigger a psychological response describable as pleasure, awe and wonder. The sight of a great tree or the song of a goldfinch can send poets and mystics into ecstasy, while the deep order inherent in nature inspires mathematicians and physicists.
Nature achieves its aesthetic impact largely through anarchic means. Each part appears free to follow its own inner drives, exhibiting economy, balance, color, proportion and symmetry in the process. And all of these self-actualizing parts appear to cooperate, with multiple balancing feedback loops maintaining homeostasis within constantly shifting population levels and environmental parameters. The result is beauty.
Ugliness, by contrast, is our unpleasant aesthetic response to the perception that an underlying natural order has been corrupted and unbalanced; that something is dreadfully out of place.
Beauty is a psychological and spiritual need. We seek it everywhere, and wither without it. We need beauty not as an add-on feature to manufactured products, but as an integral aspect of our lives.
With the gradual expansion of trade—a process that began millennia ago but that quickened dramatically during the past century—beauty has increasingly become a valuable commodity. Wealthy patrons pay fortunes for rare artworks, while music, fashion, architecture and industrial design have become multi-billion-dollar industries. Nature produces the most profound, magnificent and nurturing examples of beauty in endless abundance, for free.
Industrialism, resulting from high rates of energy use, tends to breed ugliness. Our ears are bombarded by the noise of automobiles and trucks to the point that we can scarcely hear birdsong. The visual blight of highways, strip malls and box stores obscures natural vistas. With industrial-scale production of buildings, we have adopted standardized materials produced globally to substitute for local, natural materials that fit with their surroundings. But industrialism does not just replace and obscure natural beauty—it actively destroys it, gobbling up rivers and forests to provide resources for production and consumption.
Large-scale energy production—whether from coalmines and power plants, oil derricks and refineries, or massive wind and solar installations—comes at a cost of beauty. While some energy sources are inherently uglier than others, even the most benign intrudes, dominates and depletes if scaled up to provide energy in the quantities currently used in highly industrialized nations.
The aesthetic impact of industrial processes can be mitigated somewhat with better design practices. But the surest path to restoring the beauty of nature is to reduce the scale of human population and per-capita production and consumption. Returning to a sustainable way of life need not be thought of as sacrifice; instead it can be seen as an opportunity to increase aesthetic pleasure and the spiritual nourishment that comes from living in the midst of incalculable beauty.
The family of life on Earth is very large—more than a million species have been identified and formally described by taxonomists, and estimates of the total number of species on the planet range between three and one hundred million. We humans depend for our very existence on this web of life of which we are a part. Indeed, it is part of us—each human is inhabited by hundreds of species of microbes that enable digestion and other basic functions. Yet through our species’ appropriation and destruction of natural habitat we are shredding microbial, forest, prairie, oceanic, riparian, desert and other ecosystems. Habitat loss, overharvesting, climate change, and other results of human numbers and behavior endanger untold thousands of species with extinction.
Extinction is nothing new—it is an essential part of the process of evolution. Throughout the billions of years of life’s history, life forms have appeared, persisted for thousands or millions of years, and vanished, usually individually but occasionally in convulsive mass events triggered by geological or astrophysical phenomena. There were five ancient extinction events so catastrophic that 50 to 95 percent of all species died out.
Today, humans are bringing about the sixth mass extinction in the history of life on Earth. While the normal rate of extinction is about one in a million species per year, the extinction rate today is roughly 1000 times that. According to recent studies, one in five plant species faces extinction as a result of climate change, deforestation and urban growth. One of every eight bird species will likely be extinct by the end of this century, while one third of amphibian and one quarter of mammal species are threatened.
As species disappear, we are only beginning to understand what we are losing. A recent U.N. study determined that businesses and insurance companies now see biodiversity loss as presenting a greater risk of financial loss than terrorism—a problem that governments currently spend hundreds of billions of dollars per year to contain or prevent.
Non-human species perform ecosystem services that only indirectly benefit our kind, but in ways that often turn out to be crucial. Phytoplankton, for example, are not a direct food source for people, but comprise the base of oceanic food chains, in addition to supplying half of the oxygen produced each year by nature. The abundance of plankton in the world’s oceans has declined 40 percent since 1950, according to a recent study, for reasons not entirely clear. This is one of the main explanations for a gradual decline in atmospheric oxygen levels recorded worldwide.
Efforts to determine a price for the world’s environmental assets have concluded that the annual destruction of rainforests alone entails an ultimate cost to society of $4.5—$650 trillion for each person on the planet. Many species have existing or potential economically significant uses, but the value of biodiversity transcends economics—the spiritual and psychological benefits to humans of interaction with other species are profound.
Most fundamentally, however, non-human species have intrinsic value. Shaped by the same forces that produced humanity, our kin in the community of life exist for their own sake, not for the pleasure or profit of people. It is the greatest moral blot, the greatest shame on our species, for our actions to be driving other life forms into the endless night of extinction.