LAST CHANCE FOR CIVILIZATION
Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers.
May 10, 2005
||It may seem impossible to imagine that a
technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to
destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of
Elizabeth Colbert (2005)
I have optimism of the intellect and pessimism of the will.
Humanity is facing a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. The final
depletion of petroleum reserves is likely within this century. Without
this energy source, and with no alternative sources in place, the Earth
could probably not support half of the present population of six billion
souls. (Watt, 8-9) That remnant of humanity would
subsist at a level of poverty suffered today by the typical Bangladeshi.
Furthermore, because concentrated and accessible mineral and energy
resources will no longer be available, the “low-hanging fruit” having
been harvested by preceding generations, there can never be a restoration
of industrial civilization.
Now the good news: this dreadful fate can be avoided.
And the bad news: there appears to be no political will in the United
States to effect a rescue.
Now that I have your attention, let’s examine the evidence.
It is impossible to comprehend the total reliance of our industrial
civilization upon cheap and abundant energy. Prior to the industrial
revolution, the “civilized” life of the small minority privileged
individuals, for example in ancient Greece and Rome, was built upon the
backs of hordes of slaves and draft animals. The use of bio-fuels (e.g.
wood) was essentially confined to cooking, space heating, and metallurgy.
Today, the average North American utilizes each day the energy equivalent
of thousands of slaves (one slave =1/3 horsepower hours per day) and
horses (one horse = 6 horsepower hours per day). (Cottrell, 18, 21)
Fossil energy transports his food thousands of miles to his table.
Petroleum products are the source of farm fertilizers and they drive farm
machinery. Because of the productivity of fossil fuel driven industrial
agriculture the average American farmer now feeds fifty of his fellow
citizens. In a very real sense, sense, we
“eat petroleum.” (Partridge, August, 2002) If
the oil supply were to dry up with no successor fuel at hand, most of our
population would have to return to the land to raise their own food, only
to find that the fertile and had been sacrificed to suburban sprawl or
lost to erosion and desertification. In addition, if one contemplates the
energy expended to move us to and from work, to extract and transport raw
materials, to manufacture and distribute consumer goods, to educate and
employ the specialists required to sustain a complex civilization, then
one might begin to appreciate the indispensable role of energy in the
support of industrial civilization.
True, the wasteful average American uses twice as much energy as equally
affluent Europeans. But compare US energy consumption with that of less
fortunate individuals in the “developing world.” That Average American
uses about fifty times as much fossil fuels as the average citizen of
India, and about five times the world per-capita use. (Wackernagel and
such as the late Julian Simon, like to tell us that the world population
of six billion is not all that much, when we take into account the vast
land area of the planet. Perhaps you have heard, as I have, that the
entire world population could fit comfortably into the state of Texas. So
let’s consider that example, as we take out our handy pocket calculator.
The area of Texas is 268,581 square miles, or 171,891,840 acres. Divide
that by six billion, and you have 0.03 acres per person, or about the area
of an ordinary apartment: 1307 square feet. This is, of course, allowing
no space for roads, schools, manufacturing plants, agricultural land,
forests, watershed, etc. As for parks, forests, lakes, and other
recreational areas, fagetaboutit.
In point of fact, far more land is required to support Western European
and North American life-styles than the land of one’s personal
residence. To that personal homestead, one must add the aforementioned
agricultural land, watershed, roads, industrial facilities, schools, etc.
required to fulfill the needs of that resident.
Two Canadian scholars, Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees (1996), have
called this “supporting land” the “ecological footprint.”
They have calculated the “ecological footprint” of the Average
American at 12.6 acres, the average (Asian) Indian at one acre, and the
world average at 4.4 acres. Accordingly, the ecological footprint of
greater Vancouver, BC, is roughly equal to the area of Washington state.
For all six billion human beings to live at the economic level of the
average North Americans would require the land mass of three Earths. And
finally, write Wackernagel and Rees, “humanity’s ecological footprint
is as much as 30 percent larger than nature can sustain in the long run.
In other words, present consumption exceeds natural income by 30 percent
and is therefore partially dependent on capital (wealth) depletion.” (p.
90) And that depletion, of course, is largely the depletion of
non-renewable energy resources – primarily fossil fuels.
Bottom line: as the oil runs out and fuel prices soar, we’d damned well
better be phasing in other energy sources, or homo sapiens just might go
the way of the dinosaurs – without the nudging of a killer asteroid.
And note that I’ve said nothing so far about global warming. If we are
to believe the consensus conclusion of all atmospheric scientists
(industry sponsored “biostitutes” excluded), global fossil fuel use
must be severely curtailed in advance of the natural depletion of
petroleum reserves if a climate catastrophe is to be avoided. (Lest I
digress, this urgent topic must be set aside for another essay).
Fortunately, we just might avoid the twin catastrophes of severe global
warming and the approaching end of petroleum energy. But to do so will
require coordinated global commitment, the best efforts and lavish public
support of a large cadre of scientists and engineers, and massive
investments in new technologies and infrastructures.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration is committed to a race in precisely
the wrong direction. The Bush response to the looming day of dreadful
reckoning is to starve research, development and investments in
alternative energy sources, and to bring that day of reckoning ever closer
by accelerating the consumption of fossil fuels. It’s as if Captain
Smith of the Titanic ordered that all lifeboats be tossed overboard, and
then directed the helmsman to proceed at flank speed toward the iceberg.
Fortunately, there is, in fact, an abundance of potential energy sources,
some already in use, albeit in minuscule amounts compared the usage of
depletable fossil fuels. And these alternative sources do not exacerbate
the global warming emergency.
All useful energy, nuclear, tidal, and geo-thermal power excepted, comes
from the sun. Coal, oil, natural gas, bio-fuels all contain solar energy
captured by photosynthesis and transformed into hydrocarbons. Wind energy
is generated by uneven solar heating of the earth’s surface, and
hydroelectric power is derived from solar-induced evaporation and
precipitation. Radiant energy from the sun, falling upon the earth’s
surface, can be concentrated through solar collectors, or directly
converted into electricity through photo-electric cells. Electricity and
elemental hydrogen are secondary energy sources – “energy
conveyers,” to use physicist Amory Lovins’ term – the primary
sources of which are any of the above.
All biomass and bio-waste contains recoverable fuel, though not all of it
is economically recoverable. Ethanol from corn is a newsworthy example
although, to be sure, as currently produced, it is a net-minus source of
energy – i.e., more energy is expended in its production than is
recovered from the ethanol itself. But this is an exceptional and
solvable case, as the Brazilians have demonstrated. (RMI 101-107)
Dried biomass – wood, paper, sawdust, corn-stalks, lawn cuttings –
produces heat energy from burning, though this is an inefficient and
polluting energy source. A far better source is the anoxic (“oxygen
starved”) decomposition of biomass, which produces such high-quality
fuels as gaseous methane and liquid methanol. The sources of this fuel are
limitless, and need only be collected and processed. “Slash” from
lumber, corn stalks, vegetable oil and animal fat, municipal garbage and
sewage, feedlot manure – all this and more can be sources of bio-fuels.
Household and yard garbage (including leaves and lawn cuttings), when
dumped into land fills, decompose anoxically and release vast amounts of
methane, which, as a greenhouse gas, is thirty times more damaging than
carbon dioxide. (Schneider 21) But when captured and utilized as a
fuel, the combustion products of methane are water and carbon dioxide –
and benign CO2 at that, since the component carbon is gathered
and released from the ongoing biotic “carbon cycle,” and not, as with
fossil fuels, extracted from geologically sequestered sources.
In short, there is energy all around us. We need only develop and apply
the technology to put it to work for us. Still better, we have that
technology at hand, and are prevented by vested interests in the fossil
fuel economy and their patrons in the government from developing and
distributing these benign and “climate friendly” sources of energy.
Foremost among the objections to a conversion to a solar-biofuel-hydrogen
economy is cost. Fossil fuels, we are told, are the cheapest source
of energy, and as long is this is the case, renewable sources will be
excluded by the remorseless logic of the free market.
This argument is specious, for numerous reasons.
First of all, the cost advantage is temporary, to say the least.
Now that we have apparently reached the point of peak global oil
production, and now that China and India are entering the world petroleum
market, the price of oil must increase, suddenly and significantly, as
demand surges ahead of supply.
Second, the miserly investment in the research, development, manufacture
and infrastructure of renewables is the cause of the high cost of these
energy sources, which, in turn, provides an excuse for the failure by the
fossil energy establishment (including those oil industry alumni, Bush and
Cheney) to look elsewhere for future energy sources. Accordingly,
Third, as the critics of renewable energy cite the non-competitive
current costs, they neglect to make projections of future costs which,
through advancing research, development and economies of scale are certain
to drop drastically. Case in point: the cost of information storage in
personal computers. In 1981, when I bought my first personal computer, the
salesman tried to entice me to purchase a hard drive. “For only
$2000,” he told me, “you can put five megabytes of data on this hard
drive.” Last year, I bought a 40 gigabyte hard-drive for $150. – 8,000
times as much storage capacity as the 1981 drive, at about 7% of the cost
(in constant dollars). Had automobiles followed the same cost-curve, I
could now buy a Hummer for a dollar. While there is no way that
alternative energy costs will drop in thirty years as much as computer
data storage, they will nonetheless drop dramatically, as in fact they
have already. In 1979, solar-power advocate Barry Commoner figured the
cost of photo-voltaic electricity to be approximately the same as
electricity supplied by a gas powered home generator: $1.63 per kilowatt
hour. Residential electricity at the time cost 3.5 cents / kwh. (9 cents
in 2004 dollars). As Commoner conceded, “the photovoltaic cell was
hardly commercial.” (Commoner, 35) However, with intervening
improvements in technology, photovoltaic electricity is today approaching
competitiveness. In the twenty years from 1977 to 1997, the cost of
photovoltaic energy fell from $2 /kwh to 18 cents /kwh. (Youngquist, 250)
Finally, the market can, and in fact must, be federally
“shaped,” through taxes and subsidies, to ease and hasten the
transition from a fossil fuels to a global economy based upon clean and
sustainable energy. Free-market absolutists will complain loudly about
such “big government interference,” all the while hoping that the
public will not notice that industrial agriculture, transportation and
distribution systems, and the petroleum industry all benefit from huge
government subsidies. It is past time for public officials to act in
behalf of the public and future generations, rather than the corporate
interests that have “bought” them. If they do so, public funds can be
directed to research, development and installation of renewable energy
facilities – “priming the pump” to hasten the establishment of an
eventually self-sustaining renewable energy industry.
The financial and industrial resources are available to make this
transition. The oil companies must redefine themselves as “energy
companies”– not as adversaries and competitors of the emerging
alternative energy providers, but as facilitators, in search of newer and
better energy sources. Some corporations, notably British Petroleum and
Shell, are saying as much in their public pronouncements. But such PR
declarations are all too often belied by the R&D numbers in the annual
Because the impending end of the petroleum age is a direct threat to
national security, a sizeable portion of the military budget should be
diverted toward energy independence. For example, the aerospace industry,
corporations such as Martin-Marietta, Lockheed, Rockwell and Boeing, with
their state of the art facilities for producing aircraft and rocket
launchers, are superbly equipped to manufacture high-speed intercity rail
systems – by far the most energy efficient mode of transportation and
distribution. Anyone who has traveled on Japanese and European trains, as
I have, can only be dismayed at the dismal condition of American
railroads. (Six years ago I rode the “Chunnel” train from Paris to
London – 220 miles – in less than three hours at speeds up to 140
The United States must take the lead in the transition to renewable
energy, for if we do not, we can be assured that Europe and Asia will take
that lead, leaving us behind with a declining economy and standard of
living, as we desperately cling to an obsolete and uncompetitive
Can industrial civilization, at the level of development and prosperity
now achieved in the United States, Europe and Japan, be sustained without
the abundant and cheap energy now provided by the fossil fuels? Amory
Lovins and his associates at the Rocky Mountain Institute believe that we
can – and that we must. In an astonishing and hopeful report, Winning
the Oil Endgame, Lovins et al claim that “over the next few decades,
the United States can get completely off oil and revitalize its industrial
and rural economy.” (Lovins, et al) Moreover, they propose that
this transition to a “soft energy” future can be accomplished
profitably by private enterprise. (The 270 page report can be downloaded
at no cost at http://www.oilendgame.com/ReadTheBook.html
Throughout his thirty year career, Lovins has been widely denounced as a
wild-eyed, impractical visionary. But because he has endured for three
decades, the passage of time has validated his work. With thorough,
peer-reviewed scholarship, Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute present
in their “Oil Endgame” report a plausible avenue of escape from the
impending economic collapse which must follow the sudden and permanent
loss of the fossil energy sources that now sustain industrial
civilization. And that is encouraging news, to say the least.
The RMI solution does not bode well for the investors in oil companies, if
those companies refuse to develop alternative energy sources. With the
future of civilization in the balance, the short-term interests of
petroleum industry investors should not be the controlling factor in
national and global energy policy. However, the choice between investors
vs. civilization is a false dilemma if the oil companies act as energy
companies and lead the transition to an economy based upon sustainable
energy. Moreover, the petroleum industry will survive the obsolescence of
fossil fuels, for there will be a permanent demand for petrochemical
products, notably plastics. “Firms that are quick to adopt
innovative technologies and business models,” states the RMI report,
“will be the winners of the 21st century; those that deny and resist
change will join the dead from the last millenium.” (Lovins, et al, x-xi).
Unfortunately, the Bush-Cheney administration, totally captivated by the
short-term interests of the “awl bidness” has given no serious
attention and has proposed no significant appropriations in support of the
transition to sustainable and non-polluting energy resources. They have
set us upon a path to disaster. The Bush Administration, the Republican
Congress, the mainstream media, and the American public appear to be
utterly unperturbed by this prospect.
“Civilization,” wrote H. G. Wells, “is a race between education and
disaster.” At the moment, it appears that the American civilization is
staking its entire future on the losing horse in this race.
Colbert, Elizabeth: "The Climate of Man (III)," The
New Yorker, May 9, 2005
Commoner, Barry: The Politics of Energy, New
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Gore, Al: Earth in the Balance, New York: Houghton
Partridge, Ernest: "The Oil Trap," The Online
Gadfly, August, 2002, www.igc.org/gadfly/eds/env/oiltrap.htm
Partridge, Ernest: "The Perils of Panglosism,"
Global Dialog, Winter, 2002.
Online version: "Perilous Optimism," The Online Gadfly www.igc.org/gadfly/papers/cornuc.htm
Schneider, Stephen H.: Global Warming, New York:
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