‘Energy is vital to civilisation. In fact, all of human history can be viewed through the lens of energy’
Dr Michio Kaku, ‘Physics of the Impossible’
‘Ultimately, the economy is, and always has been, a surplus energy equation. As such, it is governed by the laws of the thermodynamics, and not by the man-made ‘laws’ of the market‘
Dr Tim Morgan, ‘Life After Growth: How The Global Economy Really Works’
‘The climate change problem is principally an energy problem’
Professor David J C Mackay, ‘Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air’
‘Civilisations are fragile, impermanent things‘
Professor Joseph Tainter, ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’
President Trump and The Paris Agreement
It was President Trump’s decision to withdraw the USA from the Paris Agreement (an agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) which got me thinking once again about life, the universe and everything. When I first started this blog, I was motivated as much as anything by the question, is our civilisation collapsing? This wasn’t a morbid question; just a question that intrigued me as a physicist (by university education, anyway) and as one who took an interest in the rise and fall of civilisations as an historical theme. It also interested me from the perspective of wondering what my children’s lives would be like compared to my own. Hence the connection to recent events and the hysteria about President Trump’s decision. You could be forgiven for thinking we’re all doomed.
The Long Emergency
Originally, my interest in matters concerning the sustainability of civilisation as we know it was fuelled (forgive the pun) by two books which I read at about the same time (in 2005). One was James Kunstler’s, ‘The Long Emergency‘ and the other was Joseph Tainter’s, ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies‘. I’ve read many books on the subject since.
The essence of Kunstler’s book is to argue that sooner rather than later – on the scale of the history of mankind – we’re going to hit the fossil fuel wall, so to speak, especially as far as oil is concerned. In future, the energy cost of energy provision (sometimes called the Energy Return on Energy Invested, or EROEI) will make the price of fossil fuel energy incompatible with our way of life. In other words, eventually it will become too costly to discover, extract and process fossil fuels to deliver them to market at a price we can afford in order to sustain our complex societies.
Taking oil as an example (which fuels about 90% of the world’s transportation: cars, trucks, tractors, boats, aeroplanes), in 1930 it took one barrel of oil to provide us with 100 affordable barrels of oil for use in society; by 1970, the work (energy) of one barrel of oil provided us with just 30 barrels of oil at an affordable price for our cars, homes, factories and oil-based products; by 2005 the ratio had declined to 1:12 and the ratio continues to decline. You get the picture? We’re not running out of oil as such, we never will; there are billions of barrels of the stuff in the Earth. The problem is that we’ve been taking all the easy-to-get oil out of the ground for 160 years (oil was first discovered in 1859) and now the Earth is saying if you want more and more of this black gold, you’re going to have to pay for it – and some. The laws of geophysics apply.
As an aside, the recent stories of an oil glut don’t detract from the physics of what I’ve been explaining above. Man’s ingenuity (fracking, tar sands, tight oil etc) is allowing us to defer the inevitable; that’s all. Last year, for example, 10 billion barrels of oil were discovered. That sounds great – until you realise that that’s about one-third of annual global oil consumption. In less than 10 years, the supply of oil to markets could fall short by up to 2 million barrels per day. Then watch the oil price quickly become unaffordable with that sort of supply/demand imbalance. So, stay with me for now, but perhaps read this article later: Why We Should Be Concerned About Low Oil Prices.
You see, we’re conditioned to think that our industrialised way of life was always our way of life and, moreover, will always be our way of life.
Planet Earth As A 46 Year-Old
We forget, however, that the Industrial Revolution and the relatively brief period since then is a story of mankind figuring out how to release 2 billion years’ worth of accumulated energy reserves in what has been – again in historical terms – the blink of an eye; let’s say about 250 years. If you think of planet Earth not as being 4,600 million years old (which it is), but as being 46 years old, then modern man has been around for about 4 hours. In the last hour, man discovered agriculture. The Industrial Revolution began about a minute ago. In that 60 seconds – out of 4 hours or 14,400 seconds – we’ve come to think that fossil-fuelled economic growth of about 3% per year (which means that developed world economies have doubled every 20 – 25 years or so since the Industrial Revolution) is the norm. Well, it isn’t. Sorry.
Fossil-fuelled economic growth has, apart from anything else, exploded the world’s population to 7 billion human beings today. I regret to inform you that our dear planet Earth cannot sustain a population of 7 billion people, however Panglossian is your view about mankind’s ingenuity when it comes to ‘creating energy’. Economists will tell you that mankind can and will create enough energy to sustain 7 billion people and more on planet Earth, because the ‘laws’ of economics will prevail. The market will ensure that our voracious demand for cheap energy (ie the energy needed at an affordable price to power our highly advanced, complex societies which together make up our global civilisation) will be met by adequate supplies. The ‘laws’ of supply and demand will save the day; or rather, save the planet. Industrialised rates of economic growth will extend infinitely into the future, fuelled by our, er, finite little planet. Incidentally, we’ll talk about nuclear and other non-fossil fuel (renewable) sources of energy in a later post.
The First Law of Thermodynamics
As a physicist, I can tell you that energy cannot be created (or destroyed); it can only be transferred from one form to another. This is the First Law of Thermodynamics, or the Law of Conservation of Energy. We cannot ‘create’ more fossil fuel; we cannot ‘create’ stored sunlight. If mankind is to survive in any way like it has flourished since the start of the Industrial Revolution, then we must find substitutes for fossil fuels and a facsimile substitute for oil in particular because we live in The Oil Age. Indeed, we’re living at the fag end of The Oil Age. Globalisation is about global transportation is about oil. Remember 90% of mankind’s transportation is powered by oil; oil powers globalisation; oil powers civilisation as we know it today.
In this context, the reasons why complex societies disintegrate are of vital importance to every member of a complex society – and today that includes almost the entire world population. For the first time in the history of mankind, we live in a globalised civilisation – and any threat to civilisation is a threat to pretty much every person on our planet.
Since climate-change-induced catastrophe is flavour of the moment, I thought I’d point out that perhaps before mankind wrecks the planet through burning fossil fuels, we might find ourselves struggling somewhat to power our globalised civilisation long before we all drown under rising sea levels (owing to thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of land-based ice such as glaciers and ice sheets).
In this post, I wanted to set the scene for looking at what the end of The Oil Age might mean in practice, how civilisation might be powered in future and what this means for our children and theirs. In future posts, I’ll address these questions.
Meantime, if you think this post is worth sharing and discussing, click on one or more of the relevant buttons below and/or comment as you wish. Thanks for reading – and may I recommend the film below which brings to life the meaning of the end of The Oil Age.
The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream (bear with the quirky prologue!)