Vol.4 No.11, 02 October 2004

Cassandra or Cornucopia?

Margaret Legum

If you really knew for sure that industrial society cannot survive without using more and more energy; and that the geological limits to conventional energy sources will make that impossible; and that no one with the necessary power is planning for that situation, how would you react?

Stop thinking about it? Look for other views? Fatalist acceptance? Panic? Start growing food? More to the point, would you vote for a political leadership that told you all that was true? And that in consequence its government would immediately switch investment from energy-intensive activities to energy saving, involving foreseeable consumer sacrifice?

Suppose they told you that would mean huge price increases on private transport, sporting events, the entertainment and leisure industries, air travel, marketing and access to goods that have traveled across the world – not to mention armaments and their delivery systems – all of which guzzle fossil fuels. And that subsidies would be given for renewable energy research and implementation. Individual buildings would be fitted with solar panels; wind and water powered installations would be placed in all communities; communities would be helped to grow food.

If you voted for such a party, you would almost certainly be in the minority. The others would be telling you that is alarmist nonsense.

Cassandra has had a bad press over millennia. A figure of fun, she has been opposed by the cornucopians of every generation. Today they represent the dominant ideology that the earth is a permanent horn of plenty. Mankind’s technological ingenuity, combined with free market forces, will ensure eternal availability of new cheap energy sources. Jimmy Carter was the derided exception. He wrote in 1976 that the geological realities mean we must fundamentally change our way of life - either deliberately or perforce.

Here are some results of research brought together by Richard Heinberg, Californian professor and author of The Party’s Over’, as well as Options for Action for a Post-Carbon World and the ongoing Museletter – who will be visiting South Africa early next year.

More important than when the last drop of oil runs out is when its supply will peak. It peaks when the rate of extraction at any one site starts to fall, and the ‘net energy’ declines – that is the ratio of energy produced to that used in extraction. In the US oil production peaked in 1970. Having been the leading oil exporter, the US now imports 60% of its needs; and the ‘net energy’ ratio averages about 1:1.

When world supplies peak, increasing imports is not an option. Globally oil production will peak between 2006 and 2015 - depending on whether there is a serious financial collapse, which would buy us some time.

What about other traditional energy sources? Natural gas is peaking about now. In any case it is hard to transport around the world. Coal is still plentiful at deeper and deeper levels. But mining it is a miserable job, most of the associated skills have been lost, and it is environmentally filthy: it ruins land, water, forests and water. Nuclear energy has a low net energy yield, is expensive to decommission and involves a seriously dangerous legacy for our children in the form of waste disposal. Research on fusion absorbs billions of dollars annually without bringing a breakthrough nearer.

Hydrogen has become the cornucopians’ shared hope. The trouble is that it is not itself an energy source, using more natural gas for its production than it yields in terms of energy. Its advantages are environmental and as a storage medium. It is not the answer to energy depletion.

Then there are the renewable energy sources – wind, sun and water generation. These avoid all the problems of the others. But they have a drawback that may in the end prove a blessing in disguise: they do not produce on the scale that can satisfy a national grid. That presents a mindset challenge to current thinking about the global economy. It means a fundamental decentralization of economic and political power. Human scale economies might become the inevitable outcome of traditional energy depletion.

The truth is that the unavoidable solution is a world that uses much less energy. Not just fewer gas-guzzlers, but local organic agriculture replacing industrial agriculture; and the end of the mass holiday airline industry. That is what the scientists are telling us. It means a different kind of economy globally. It means a radical shift in the economic centers of gravity. If renewable energy works best locally, economies will have to be more local.

How would it come about? Certainly not from the top, where too much is invested in global control. It may follow a collapse in the financial system, which is based on precisely the conditions that gave us the Crash of the 1930s: over-production and under-consumption; an international cancer of personal and institutional debt; and a politics that over-privileges a small minority.

And yes, perhaps we should all begin now to grow our own food.

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