Getting cool with getting poor

24 10 2021

This is a guest post from my best friend Bruce Teakle who was instrumental in our adopting the alternative lifestyle we currently take for granted. He is responsible for me undertaking a renewable energy technology course in Brisbane thirty years ago where I learned all I know about solar power and energy efficiency. And that it’s not enough to save us from collapse, because our predicament isn’t technological, it’s social…… Read on.

Summary: if we want to avoid a climate disaster, we need to use much less fossil fuel. However everything we consume is produced using energy that is almost entirely from fossil fuel. Money spent, energy used, fossil fuel used and carbon emissions are all pretty much the same thing and all drive climate damage. The proposed solution of wind and solar energy generation isn’t saving us from climate change and can’t maintain the affluence and economic growth we’ve come to expect. Getting poorer is the our only way to reduce our damage to the earth’s ecological and climatic systems, and is the unavoidable outcome of our fossil energy supply constraints. 

Because money is energy, the only way to burn less carbon is to earn and spend less money: get poorer. Cool with that?

The energy is money problem

An imaginary, environmentally conscious but charming school teacher couldn’t decide which of 3 girlfriends he wanted to marry, so he gave them each $50, and secretly pledged to propose to the one who caused the least carbon emissions while spending his gift. One had a massage, one filled her car’s petrol tank, and one bought a basket of organic groceries. Which one should he marry? Answer: He’ll have to decide another way. As far as we can tell, they used about the same amount of energy, and it’s nearly all fossil fuel. Why? However you spend your money, it drives the same fossil fuel-based energy economy, pretty much in proportion to what you spend. 

The idea

Some years ago I heard a radio report about research into German households that had reduced their heating bills by installing insulation. Much of the money saved on heating was spent on overseas holidays that included a lot of flying. In balance there wasn’t actually a net energy saving. I was a keen proponent of energy efficiency, so this was pretty challenging: if people’s income and ability to purchase energy is fixed, then savings in one area simply lead to expenditure in another. Perhaps all the efficient lightbulbs and fridges I admired weren’t helping so much. More challenging evidence came in the Dust to dust report which examined lifetime energy costs of a wide range of cars. The standout finding (in the first version of the paper) was that a Toyota Prius used more energy per mile than a Hummer, when all lifetime energy inputs, including manufacturing energy and life expectancy, were included (a later version of the paper amended this, but the point remained that the Prius wasn’t dramatically better).Thereport showed that innovative technology like hybrid cars require astronomical energy investments to build production lines that tend to be scrapped and re-built as technologies are superceded. Conversely, old technologies are cheap (in energy and money) per unit because the investment in their production has been paid for over a long time and many units. In addition, factors such as life-expectancy, maintenance and cosmetic repairs have a big impact on total energy consumption, because every dollar spent on a car means more energy used. Fuel consumption per kilometre on the road is only part of the story. These reports added to my reading writers like Ted Trainer (Author of Abandon Affluence), and increased my doubts that technology – efficiency, renewables, digitisation – will reduce our carbon emissions and save us from climate disaster. 

Efficiency: reducing or shuffling energy?

Most people I’m close to care about the environment and about other people. They are very concerned about global warming, and the range of other consumption-driven environmental problems. Because they care, many well-educated and well-meaning people want to reduce their personal and community-wide carbon emissions. We ride bikes, drive efficient cars, install solar panels, use electrical goods with 5 stars and install insulation. But is doing all these things just shuffling our energy expenditure instead of reducing it? Consider our imaginary school teacher – now recently married – who has decided to reduce his carbon footprint. He sells one of the 2 family cars, buys a bicycle and rides to work every day to be a good model to his students. His transport energy consumption plummets and so do his costs. He is not only burning less petrol, he’s saving money – at least $6000 per year. After a couple of years, it’s enough for a holiday in Bali. The money and energy he’s saved from driving, gets used on flying. Can he avoid this energy burden by spending his savings on something less energy intensive? What about spending $50 on a massage? While his cycling muscles are being rubbed, little fossil energy is directly consumed. However the $50 he spends will almost always flow to energy-dependent consumption: paying the masseus’ rent (which funds energy intensive building and the landlord’s consumption), car repayments, food. $50 worth of these energy-intensive processes could not happen if he didn’t pay for a massage. As long as our cycling teacher earns and spends the same wage, he will be causing about the same amount of energy consumption and carbon emissions. That’s because in our fossil fuelled economy, money represents energy use. 

Money is energy

My proposition is that the money we spend is the best measure for the amount of energy we burn. This is based on the reality that every economic activity consumes energy, and almost all that energy is from fossil fuel. It is easier to understand this energy – money relationship by looking at the whole economy. Economic growth as we know it started 300 years ago in the industrial revolution, when Europeans learnt how to burn coal in more creative ways, including making iron and fuelling steam engines. Prior to that, the economy was limited to biological productivity – mostly food and wood – and the amount of productive land limited the size of the economy and population. The only way to get rich was to steal from others: e.g. invading other countries, forcing people to be serfs. Growth really took off in the late 1800s, when Americans started big-scale use of fossil petroleum. The whole unnatural world built in the short time since then has been manufactured with fossil fuels.

World Energy Use by fuel

Above is a graph of total world energy supply, by fuel, from the International Energy Agency. It tells the story of the global economy. Energy consumption has more than doubled since 1971, and nearly all the growth has come from fossil sources. You can see the 1970s oil crisis, the 1980s recession, and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) as dips. The only times energy consumption goes down is when people get poorer. This relationship is illustrated more directly in the graph below, which compares growth in energy consumption with growth in the GDP.  

https://ourfiniteworld.com/2017/08/14/world-gdp-in-current-us-dollars-seems-to-have-peaked-this-is-a-problem/This graph superimposes energy and GDP growth, showing more clearly that the economy is really an expression of energy use. Again you can see the 1970s oil crisis, the 1980s recession, and the 2008 GFC that show as dips in the growth rate of both energy and money. If we understand the modern economy as a fossil-fuel-powered process, we can view money spent as the flow of fossil energy.

The problem with energy efficiency

Energy efficient technologies are often promoted as a solution to climate change. Recognition that money is a measure of energy helps to explain why brilliant technological advances in efficiency have not resulted in decreased energy use.A recent essay by Kris De Decker in Low-Tech Magazine makes the case that energy efficiency in the affluent world is part of an escalation in expectations about energy services (the services that depend on energy), and itself doesn’t reduce energy consumption at all. Ever increasing expectations: of air conditioning in summer, heating in winter, convenience of transport, size of houses; serve to increase our total energy use, despite increasing efficiency.  Kris writes of efficiency: “it is about not using a fuel that does not exist”. This is deliciously similar to my children’s joke about bargains: “I saved so much money buying that bargain mountain bike, I had enough left over to buy a used iPhone and still be $150 ahead”. They can see that savings relative to an imaginary expenditure, as if it was real money, enables us to evade the reality of what we have actually spent. Where are our brilliant advances in efficiency in the world fuel consumption graph above? You can’t see them, because they have been used to increase affluence instead of decrease consumption. Wouldn’t we have used heaps more energy if we hadn’t invented all the efficient cars, planes and lightbulbs? No, because energy costs money to produce and has a limited supply in the earth. People have spent as much on energy as they can afford. The failure of energy efficiency to reduce energy consumption was recognised 150 years ago. The Jevons Paradox is named after a brilliant English economist, William Stanley Jevons, who was concerned about depletion of coal reserves in the 1860s, and observed that greater efficiency of coal use led to higher consumption – not less. To me this now seems obvious. Energy efficiency is really the lowering in price of energy services, which leads people to consume more and find new uses for energy services. It’s like junk food: as it gets cheaper, people don’t spend less on junk food, they eat more and spend more on it. Similarly, cheap cars enable more people to buy cars, and efficient cars enable people to drive further. A good argument is made that efficiency is fundamental to economic growth. Efficiency is useful. In an energy-constrained situation – this means a level of poverty – efficiency can raise people’s standard of living with real benefits. But again, efficiency helps a poor person to increase their affluence, not reduce their demand for energy. 

The innovation myth

I’ve found the arguments against the energy efficiency paradox almost as interesting as the idea itself. Dust to Dust was fiercely rebutted (e.g. https://www.cnet.com/news/dust-to-dust-is-dust-prius-uses-less-energy-than-hummer/). Critics defended the Prius as a solution to energy problems, illuminating a strong commitment to the idea that technological developments will enable us to keep driving without cooking the planet – the modern man defending his right to drive. Perhaps the Prius is a symbol of how we try to fix the problems created by innovative use of energy, with more innovative use of energy, further digging ourselves into the hole so well described by Jevons’ paradox. Energy efficient or electric or hydrogen fuel-cell or hover cars are the wrong answer to the wrong question. Our current car culture is itself not sustainable, whatever technology is used. Moving ourselves around in 1 or 2 ton metal boxes just takes a lot of energy. 

Economics: pretending the one way flow is a circle

I suspect much of our confusion about energy comes from economics. Economists tell us that money moves in a circular flow, from consumers to businesses, then back again, but this is a misleading model. The real value of money is in enabling us to spend energy which flows one way: from the resource (mostly in the earth) to waste (mostly in the atmosphere). Thus, the economy is really a flow of energy from resource to waste. Money is used to control who gets the benefits from that flow. Jevons Paradox is only a paradox because we have been confused by the circular notions of economics, and ignored the one-way flow of energy, mostly from coal, oil and gas that get burned up and never come back. 
Have a look at how a physicist describes the economy and energy

Prove it

I haven’t provided a strong evidence-based argument for the proposition that money is the best measure of emissions. In the complexity of the global economy, this is difficult to prove. Imagine chasing down the energy content of dollars spent in different ways, through the infinite open channels of the economy. This idea has  been proposed many times before. Economist Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity without growth, gives a figure of 770g carbon per dollar (presumably US$) in the global economy (hear his excellent presentation at https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/2010-07-04/3031202). 

Tim Garrett, a climate scientist who writes brilliantly on the relationship between economics and energy, proposes a more sophisticated relationship between money and energy. He says it takes 7.1watts of continuous power to maintain every US$1000 (2005 money) of historically accumulated economic wealth (read it here). It is clear that each dollar spent does drive fossil fuel use – not instantly, but each transaction causes a chain of events. There isn’t any place to spend money that won’t lead to energy consumption. However, the money is energy argument would be weak if the ratio of money to energy was wildly variable, or if there was a better measure. We don’t have a better measure. Research-based measures of energy consumption are common, e.g. Dust to dust comparing cars, or Elephant in the sky critiquing the role of aviation in carbon emissions. However reducing emissions using this reductionist approach is difficult and can lead to misunderstandings. If our cycling schoolteacher decided not to holiday in Bali, to avoid aviation carbon emissions, he might instead drive to a holiday at the Gold Coast, where his money would pay for energy-intensive construction of high-rise apartments and the jet-setting lifestyles of their owners. Understanding the role of our money in driving consumption, energy use and carbon emissions is fundamental to our decision-making. This helps us understand that the real solutions are humble and frugal, not technological. For example, in transport energy use, social behaviours make far more difference than car fuel efficiency. An old six cylinder Holden carrying a bunch of labourers to work emits far less carbon pollution per person than one professor in his Prius. The research may tell us that a Prius is more efficient in petrol per kilometre than an old Holden, but this doesn’t really help us decide how to get to work. The cost of the Prius tells us about the huge energy input to its manufacturing, compared to keeping an old car going, and if it’s only carrying one person, that energy cost isn’t being shared around.

The pool of consumption

Is the ratio of money to energy widely variable? I doubt it, because nearly all money flows to the same pool of economic consumption. Think about where the money goes when you buy anything: it flows to the energy consumption of all the machines and people along the economic path to you. It is the same with buying energy: if you buy a tank of petrol, your money flows to the petrol station staff (who spend it on their living costs: car, house, clothes, food), the station infrastructure (building made of gas-fired concrete, coal-fired electric lights, refrigerators, pumps), oil transported in ships made from coal-smelted steel, delivery trucks, thousands of oil company staff and their living costs. In fact no money goes directly to the petrol, it all flows to the millions of expenditures that get oil from the ground to your car.It is the same with coal. Most coal we buy is for electricity consumption, a mind-bogglingly complex system resulting in a vast number of economic and energy transactions, through wages to employees, royalties to governments (spent on roads and schools), and payments to factories for transformers, turbines. Huge amounts of oil are used in coal production: transporting coal, machinery and the people who work producing it. If you blur your eyes a little, these expenditures look very similar to the whole economy: people, buildings, machines, energy. Whatever you spend your money on, it flows into the same pool of energy-dependent consumption. This is all really applying the idea of ‘embodied energy’ (the energy that needs to be used to consume a product) to money. Every expenditure of currency drives fossil energy use. We could call it the embodied energy of money – similar to Tim Jackson’s 770g carbon per dollar. 

Distortions

Of course dollars spent is an imperfect measure of energy cost, because there are distortions within the money system and in the relationship between money and energy. There are differences in emissions between fuels: coal is more carbon intensive than oil, which is more intensive than gas. However, as described above, there is a significant degree of blending in the complex paths of these fuels to the consumer: coal is dependent on oil and oil is dependent on coal. I suspect the biggest distortions are economic, such as subsidies, which hide energy costs in artificially low prices, and debt which hides energy costs by delaying payment. Some countries deliberately distort the relationship between money and energy by adding energy taxes. Europeans pay more for car and truck fuel – petrol and diesel – because of fuel taxes. This has the effect of making them poorer and is one of the causes of Europeans’ much lower per capita energy use. This is a survival strategy for Europeans, who import more than half their total energy supplies and are very vulnerable to energy markets. These graphs show the wide variation in tax rates on road fuel, and the wide variation in energy use per person. 

[OECD (2013),Effective tax rates on energy: Gasoline vs. diesel (road use), in Taxing Energy Use, OECD Publishing.]

[The World Bank : Kilograms of oil equivalent (2011)By 未知との遭遇 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31190628%5D

Rooftop solar

Much hope is focussed on household solar energy as a solution to our climate and energy depletion problems, but if you look at the money, it doesn’t look like it’s helping much. What if our school teacher and his wife, earning $100,000 per year between them, install PV panels on their roof. Government subsidies pay $5000, they pay $5000, so $10,000 is spent on energy intensive PV panels, inverter, wire and tradespeople. The PV panels are saving the couple $1000 per year from their power bills: about 1% of their income, so about 1% of their energy consumption. They have reduced their contribution to the energy cost of coal-fired electricity but now have an extra $1000 per year to spend on consumption of other energy-dependent products, perhaps including air conditioning. Has installing PV panels reduced their carbon emissions? It doesn’t look like it: government subsidy has allowed the household to spend more money than their normal income, and ongoing electricity bill savings enable spending on other energy-intensive products. In effect, the family income, and thus energy consumption, has been increased. 

Money in the bank?

What if our schoolteacher just leaves his money in the bank – will that help him escape energy-driving consumption? It seems not. “Fractional reserve lending” is an old strategy of money lenders, enabling a bank to lend out several times more money than they hold in cash. It’s legal and it works, as long as not all the depositors ask for their money back at the same time – this happens and it’s called “a run on the banks”. What this means for our climate-conscious schoolteacher is that his $1000 in the bank might be financing $5000 or $10,000 of lending and consequent consumption. Hiding his money under the mattress doesn’t cause this multiplication of harm to the climate, and it does take money out of circulation and reduce consumption. However once he spends it (if he can find it), his money goes back to driving emissions again. 

Decoupling?

Perhaps the strongest argument in favour of the “money is energy” proposition is the idea that it may be possible to “decouple” GDP (Gross Domestic Product = total amount of money spent) from energy use, environmental impact or carbon emissions. A good start is this essay by Nafeez Ahmed reviewing some studies: https://www.resilience.org/stories/2020-07-15/green-economic-growth-is-an-article-of-faith-devoid-of-scientific-evidence/?mc_cid=de076fc29a&mc_eid=a31ee7ab4a   and this page: http://www.resilience.org/stories/2018-01-02/are-we-decoupling-not-really-but-happy-2018-anyway/ . An economic analysis rebutting the decoupling idea here: http://www.pnas.org/content/112/20/6271.full Tim Jackson roundly rebuts the potential for decoupling in his podcast at https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/2010-07-04/3031202. The graphs above show that the growth of global GDP has been matched very closely by the growth in energy consumption, but sometimes a superficial look at some high-tech economies shows periods of economic growth without so much energy. With the shift of manufacturing, rich countries offload many energy-hungry industries to poor countries, and now import high-embodied-energy manufactured products which aren’t accounted for in their national energy consumption figures. This is like paying your neighbour to cook dinner: your energy bill goes down, but your food bill goes up. Overall you use the same or more energy, but more energy cost is hidden in other bills. 

Affluence = emissions

If the argument that ‘money is energy’ is right, then most efforts of the wealthy world’s educated classes to fix climate change are to no avail. International agreements and schemes have had no impact on steadily rising carbon emissions, even in the 29 years since the first International Panel on Climate Chance (IPCC) report clearly outlined the problem. The only occasions when our emissions have been (briefly) reduced have been events generally considered to be disastrous: the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the 1980s recession and the 1970s oil crisis. Economic growth and carbon emissions are inseparable. This puts our desires to leave a habitable planet for our children in direct conflict with our aspirations for affluence: a good education, a successful career, and the reward, in proportion to our value as a person, by income – our share of fossil energy. There is no way around the uncomfortable truth: if we don’t want to cook the planet for our kids, we need to be poorer, in the economic sense of having less ability to buy stuff. Some people (like Ted Trainer) have been saying this for decades, but it seems a no-go zone for public discussion, even by environmental organisations. Kevin Anderson says we’ve known all about the dangers of global warming for 27 years, but haven’t tried to reduce our emissions. “A shameful litany of technocratic fraud” See him give a straight explanation of our climate situation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjTtohMgGk8 ). The other no-go in public discussion is resource limits, which will take away choice and make us poorer whatever we do. 

Peak everything

Our social conversation about energy and global warming is largely within a framework of consumer choice: how can we make choices that are better for the climate? This fits with our societal myth of limitless energy resources which will always be easily and cheaply accessed. Almost all conversation about future energy supply is shaped by our belief that technological solutions will maintain cheap energy: nuclear fusion, thorium reactors, low-cost photovoltaic panels, oil from algae. Prius or Tesla cars are a step along the same thought path, that we are headed for a Star Wars future where our cleverness will ensure energy and materials are always in abundance. This view of our future has been shaped by our history, over only a few generations, of continuous economic growth, fuelled by increasing availability and consumption of fossil fuels. We project that history of growth forwards with our science-fiction-based myth of the high-tech future. We collectively hold to a determinism – a belief that a particular path is set for our future – that our expectations of ongoing growth and affluence will be met. Our media, our conversations, our government policies, all align with this myth. There is a story that much better fits the facts than the techno-fix narrative: the “one-off bonanza” story. Humans lived on the products of nature for 200,000 years, until their accumulated cleverness enabled them to mine and burn the coal, oil and gas that had lain in the earth for hundreds of millions of years. When this fuel was cheap and easy to extract, humans multiplied exponentially and used the energy in a multitude of ever-cleverer ways. As the fuel became harder to extract, people got poorer, reduced in numbers and this was very hard for them. This perspective is usually described under the heading “peak oil”.Peak oil leads us to the related issues of peak coal, peak minerals, etc.. If fossil fuel becomes harder to get, everything we we extract using oil is also harder to get, including other energy sources like coal, uranium, silicon for PV panels or wind power. It is like when you are short of money, you are short of everything that costs money. While the concept of peak oil is obvious, there is a strong incentive to imagine the problem to be far in the future. However, many people believe we are at the peak now. Consider how new oil is being produced in North America: by cooking tar sands in Canada, fracking tight oil in USA, and deepwater wells in the Gulf of Mexico. These are expensive, energy-intensive ways to get oil, not at all like 20th century oil production. A lot of commentary proposes that producers are losing money with these processes and that reserves are depleting fast. Consider how countries like Britain and USA have peaked in their oil production and are now net importers, while other countries like Egypt have declining oil exports and collapsing economies. As Richard Heinberg, a respected  writer on peak oil says: the party’s over .

Renewable energy 

A strong narrative of the progressive Left is that the solution to peak oil and global warming is renewable energy. Increasing our use of renewable energy is good, but there is no way it can maintain the affluence and growth we feel entitled to. Manufacture of renewable energy devices uses great amounts of fossil energy, so their price is totally dependent on the price of fossil energy. An increase in the value of energy due to fossil fuel scarcity would make renewable energy more expensive and us poorer. If we scratch through the hype, there is no prospect of running an economy that looks like ours, with renewable energy alone (see essays analysing this by Kris De Decker and David Mackay). 

Energy return on investment

To understand renewable energy it is essential to grasp the concept of ‘Energy Return On Energy Invested’ (EROEI). This is a measure of how much productive energy we get for each unit of energy invested in delivering it. For example, an oil well might take the energy equivalent of 1 ton of oil to drill, set up the infrastructure, refine and deliver 20 tons of oil, giving an EROEI of 20. Most renewable energy sources, such as photovoltaic and wind (which together provide less than 1% of global energy) have much lower EROEIs than coal and oil. Renewables such as hydroelectricity and waste wood have a high EROEI, but these can’t be significantly expanded because of limited resources and environmental problems. Ethanol fuel from grain (produced as a petroleum substitute) has an EROEI of around 1, meaning it consumes as much fossil energy to produce as the fuel contains. There is a well developed argument that an affluent, complex and growth-dependent economy requires lots of high EROEI energy (like 20th century coal and oil), and that renewables are not able to deliver this. 

Putting renewables into perspective

To put wind and solar renewables into perspective: they are part of the thin grey line on the top layer of this graph. The explosion of rooftop solar in the last 10 years isn’t visible, wind and solar together hasn’t anywhere near matched the growth in total energy consumption, and hasn’t dented the huge baseline of fossil fuels. By far the biggest renewable energy source is biofuels and waste, which includes unsustainable burning by mostly poor people in poor countries, sustainable wood burning, and a tiny amount of bio-fuels like ethanol and biodiesel which have a marginal or small EROEI. Wind and solar energy are not protecting the climate, nor replacing our diminishing reserves of fossil fuel.We can expect to increasingly depend on renewable energy in the future, and the sooner we get started the better. However there is no chance we can maintain the growth and affluence we expect, in an economy powered by renewable energy. 

Nuclear energy and other technotopias

Nuclear energy is often promoted as one of the technological solutions to our energy and climate problems, but there’s no way it can keep the party going. Nuclear reactors make a lot of electricity in places like France, where they operate under massive direct and indirect subsidies. Nuclear fuels, facilities and research programs have astronomical embodied fossil energy. Conventional nuclear reactors use uranium that has a limited supply, breeder reactors make fuel but have much greater waste and risk. Thorium reactors have an enthusiastic following as a magic bullet, but don’t yet exist as a working source of energy, and would take decades to start rolling out. Nuclear fusion has been promised for decades, and no doubt will continue that way. Remember that nuclear energy only generates electricity, which currently accounts for about 1/4 of global emissions. The other 3/4 of emissions goes to activity that doesn’t currently use electricity, because that would be too expensive or impractical (consider trucks, for a start http://energyskeptic.com/2015/all-of-california-electricity-per-year-to-power-16000-catenary-trucks-on-2400-to-8275-miles-of-highway/https://www.peakprosperity.com/alice-friedemann-when-the-trucks-stop-running/). Switching the world economy to nuclear energy (converting everything that now runs on oil to run on nuclear electricity) quickly enough to avoid both global warming and peak oil, and cheaply enough to avoid economic disruption, is not a realistic prospect. Perhaps the worst technotopian dream is “negative carbon” technologies: those that claim to be able to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and put it somewhere safe. This is often titled clean coal, carbon sequestration or carbon capture and storage – a technology that has never been economical to implement (meaning that it takes too much energy to do). I understand that the economic model on which the Paris agreement is based, anticipates that a technology like this will be invented and somehow remove a high proportion of CO2 from the atmosphere in the near future. It would require funding an industrial infrastructure on a similar scale, cost and energy demand of the global electricity generating system. Clearly this is a fantasy invented as an excuse for doing nothing about the real problem. Decisions about nuclear energy, fossil fuels, computer games, agricultural chemicals, military adventurism, extramarital affairs, etc. all suffer from the same human frailties: we have a great new idea, exaggerate the imagined benefits, minimise all the problems and inflate sense of our power to manage the consequences.A cool look at the world’s energy situation reveals that our economy totally depends on a limited supply of fossil energy, which is getting harder to deliver. There are no new energy sources that can meet current global demand, avoid terrible climate change or maintain our current affluence. We need to reconcile ourselves to a future of decreasing energy use. The nice way to describe this is energy descent. 

A peek at the global perspective

I don’t want to write about the climate emergency (there is heaps of good and horrifying information about that), but it’s relevant to mention the scale of that situation. The world’s richest 10% (that’s us) collectively have about the same carbon emissions as the poorer 90%. That means the rich 10% have about 10 times the emissions per capita as the poorer people. This means that if we are to reduce global emissions, nearly all the reductions must come from the rich, as the poor can’t really get any poorer and stay alive. Reducing global emissions by 50% in 10 years (as required) would require the equivalent of stopping all emissions from the rich. This gives some perspective of what sort of actions are real solutions: major, short-term reductions many times bigger than the Global Financial Crisis. 

Getting poorer: the only way forward

So far I’ve made two arguments for getting poorer: it’s the only way to avoid cooking the planet; and it’s going to happen anyway as we run out of fossil energy. The solutions we are offered as responses to climate change and resource constraints don’t work: efficiency (unless part of a downsizing strategy) simply shifts our energy use to different places; and renewables have no prospect of maintaining our expectations of affluence and growth. There are other, very strong, reasons to get poorer, that I won’t explore in depth here. Violence and oppression are used to maintain the shocking differences in wealth between people in the world. A move towards greater equity and less violence would require greatly reduced affluence for people in rich countries. There is also a strong argument that our obsession with earning and spending money wastes our short and precious lives, harming our relationships, families and communities. Once you have enough, more doesn’t make you happier. 

By Thomasjam – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51509025

This graph of social progress relative to energy consumption shows how increased energy use tends to improve social measures. Note that the energy scale is logarithmic, so the countries on the right use many times more energy than those on the left. However energy consumption is not very good at producing social progress: Russians uses about 10x as much energy as Philipinos, but have lower social measures; Americans use more than 2x as much as Danish, with lower social measures.By Thomasjam [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons]

The politics of energy and climate change

If you accept the arguments made above, or the data on energy consumption in the graph above, it is clear that the current political conversation fails to address our energy, climate or economic challenges. The political Right and Left are both totally committed to the paradigm that is driving our climate and resource problems. The Right either denies there are problems with the environment or resources, or says they must not get in the way of growth and consumption. The Left recognises there are problems, but says we will fix them with regulation, innovation, technology and thus maintain growth and consumption. Both are incompatible with the science (the closest thing we have to facts) showing that our fossil energy resource is finite, burning it up is cooking the planet, and the earth doesn’t have enough resources, or capacity to absorb waste and emissions, for everyone to live like Americans (or Australians or Europeans). In this light, we are all little different from climate-change deniers: the deniers have merely chosen to get off the logic train earlier than those who accept the climate science but can’t accept what it means for how we live. The well-educated classes who “vote for the climate” are driving carbon emissions in proportion to their income, just like climate deniers. 

The non-solutions

I am definitely not proposing that we can address our climate problems by taking a moral position on money or affluence – a campaign for voluntary frugality. That’s not going to happen. My goal is that we, as Greta Thunberg says, “tell the truth”, so we can make helpful decisions. Understanding that money represents energy and emissions, and that we are on a path of energy descent, gives us a “crap filter” for the information blizzard we are subjected to. Expensive “solutions”, like electric cars and solar batteries, are more of the same problem. Political promises to solve problems with economic growth mean wrecking our kids’ futures by cooking the planet, and are probably undeliverable. As we begin energy descent, we are at great risk of spending our efforts in denial and violence trying to extend our energy wealth. There are an abundance of voices telling those already frustrated by energy descent to blame their discomfort on some group of people: immigrants, or Muslims, or the other political party. Consider what happened to the USA in the 1860s when the southern states were confronted with the loss of their low cost, pre-oil, energy supply: slavery. The Civil war was a catastrophe, as was the invasion of Iraq (another war about energy), each time wasting astronomical amounts of energy and making most people sadder and poorer. Consider also the American “preppers”, who build bunkers full of tinned food and guns and prepare to shoot their hungry neighbours. The less we understand the reality of our situation, the more likely we are to resort to greed and violence.

What to do about it

An effective response to our climate and resource challenges needs to start in our heads. There are plenty of practical problems, but we can’t deal with them until we’re cool with the reality of our situation. Planning to get poorer peacefully in our communities, instead of fighting over diminishing resources, is a huge opportunity to give our children a safer, happier future. To do this, we need to see ourselves differently as individuals. Currently, our money income defines us: our career success, our status, our sexual attractiveness. Reducing our earning time or wage level is, within our economic and social paradigm, to waste our skills, miss opportunity, become less important. This is the primary task of addressing climate change and peak oil: developing a new identity that allows us to value ourselves and each other without reference to what we spend and burn. Our new individual identities need to include our communities, a part of us that has been hit hard by the rise of consumerism. Our future, like most of our history, is built on our successful interdependence with our neighbours. Helping out, and being helped, is not only the cheapest way to do most things, it’s also the happiest. If we can let go of (or at least manage) our consumer identities, and rebuild our community relationships, then we can start the task of building an economy of “sufficiency”, focussed on providing people with fulfilling lives on minimum energy and resources. This project has already started, under titles such as Permaculture, Transition Towns, Resilience, Sufficiency, Retrosuburbia; and clearly has a lot of work to do. In an economic paradigm of “sufficiency” we could pursue the minimum level of money-based consumption that enables human dignity and health, and devote the balance of our time to doing what makes us happy: looking after family, community and environment. Growing, making and fixing more of our needs in family and community economies of trust and interdependence, or extending local economic capacity with local currencies, increases our economic well-being but doesn’t enable carbon emissions. It also builds a resilience to shifting economic conditions. To build cultures and economies like this requires adopting new paradigms in our minds and communities, building new systems that provide our needs, and learning and teaching the required skills. Getting cool with getting poor, and letting go of the dreams that make us wreck our country and our future, is fundamental to this. If you did not want much, there was plenty. (Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee)

Acknowlegement

Thanks to Carol Booth for her generous help in editing this – it’s a difficult idea to get across!

Links

If you think I must be wrong because nobody agrees with me: you have a valid point. Herd instincts evolved because they work – mostly. Here are some sources I recommend if you want to think more about the challenges I have presented. Nate Hagens
I recently heard Nate Hagens interviewed on Radio Ecoshock, and he gave a really good way of looking forward and working out what action to take, with a focus on how our ecological problems will be experienced as an economic crisis. I strongly recommend listening to the podcast: https://www.ecoshock.org/2020/01/nate-hagens-the-collision.html

Post Carbon Institutehttps://www.postcarbon.orgPost Carbon Institute collects some really good communicators about peak oil and global warming. I’ve been particularly enjoying their recent podcast Crazy Town https://www.postcarbon.org/crazytown/, about the distressing mismatch between what seems logical (what I’ve written about above) and what everyone is doing. Their new report The Future is Rural https://www.postcarbon.org/publications/the-future-is-rural/ is excellent and clear. David Holmgren’s Retrosuburbia
Our family and friends have been enjoying David Holmgren’s recent book Retrosuburbia, which outlines a household and community path for energy descent. I think this is where things are at currently – it’s not a time when policy reform can be looked to for progress, culture needs to lead. More information on the book and its ideas can be found at the book’s website retrosuburbia.com, including valuable free download reading. An excellent podcast interview of David about the book is here. Our family particularly enjoyed reading the Aussie Street chapter from the book out loud to each other – it shows the power of story to getting ideas across.
Ted Trainerhttp://www.thesimplerway.infoTed Trainer was the first person I ever heard or read that really put the affluence myth to the test, in his book Abandon Affluence. Over 30 years ago he showed that renewable energy, at any price, couldn’t replace fossil fuels. 
Here’s a nice, short essay by Ted that sums things up pretty well: https://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=12162&page=0
Kevin Anderson on climate changehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjTtohMgGk8  This is an excellent, concise, but challenging video in which academic Kevin Anderson lays out the facts on climate change and how government plans don’t match the science. Resilience.orgresilience.org is a program of the Post Carbon Institute, focussed on what sort of new economy we should be building. This is a useful article on “decoupling”, the misguided idea that we can have economic growth without growth in carbon emissions  http://www.resilience.org/stories/2018-01-02/are-we-decoupling-not-really-but-happy-2018-anyway/Gail Tverberg https://ourfiniteworld.comGail is an excellent writer on energy, using the discipline of focussing on facts. Here is her article on peak GDP (have we peaked already?) https://ourfiniteworld.com/2017/08/14/world-gdp-in-current-us-dollars-seems-to-have-peaked-this-is-a-problem/Energy cost of energy bloghttps://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.comA more detailed look at fossil fuel consumptionhttps://www.nationalobserver.com/2017/07/13/analysis/these-missing-charts-may-change-way-you-think-about-fossil-fuel-addiction?utmBedazzled by energy efficiency (Kris De Decker’s essay)http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2018/01/bedazzled-by-energy-efficiency.html#moreJevons’ paradoxhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradoxLiving within planetary limits (the challenge of equity)https://theconversation.com/is-it-possible-for-everyone-to-live-a-good-life-within-our-planets-limits-91421Sustainable energy without the hot airThis is a really comprehensive analysis of Britain’s energy situation, if it tried to run on some sort of sustainable energy supply. It’s a pdf book, free to download, that takes a lot of reading but leaves you with a much better understanding of the energy situation of rich countries. https://www.withouthotair.com

The Conversation: Affluence is killing the planet, warn scientists

This recent article in The Conversation includes a lot of good links to papers on rebound, sufficiency, etc.. https://theconversation.com/affluence-is-killing-the-planet-warn-scientists-141017

More evidence against decoupling


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5 responses

24 10 2021
king1394

More time spent reading in bed seems to a be a reasonable approach

25 10 2021
Dr Mike Joy

Brilliant thanks for putting the effort in. This is why it so hard to get people to listen, its scares the SH*T out of everyone most importantly and especially politicians and why we cant leave it to them

26 10 2021
Angella

Thank you for posting.
Very difficult to live in the modern world without being part of the problem.

26 10 2021
postkey

‘We’ have 16 years?

‘Global peak oil production may have already happened in October of 2018 (https://energyskeptic.com/2020/will-covid-19-delay-peak-oil/ Table 1). It is likely the decline rate will be 6%, increasing exponentially by +0.015% a year (see post “Giant oil field decline rates and peak oil”). So, after 16 years remaining oil production will be just 10% of what it was at the peak.’
http://energyskeptic.com/2020/climate-change-dominates-news-coverage-at-expense-of-more-important-existential-issues/

Or,
‘We’ have ten years?
“ . . . our best estimate is that the net energy
33:33 per barrel available for the global
33:36 economy was about eight percent
33:38 and that in over the next few years it
33:42 will go down to zero percent
33:44 uh best estimate at the moment is that
33:46 actually the
33:47 per average barrel of sweet crude
33:51 uh we had the zero percent around 2022
33:56 but there are ways and means of
33:58 extending that so to be on the safe side
34:00 here on our diagram
34:02 we say that zero percent is definitely
34:05 around 2030 . . .
we
34:43 need net energy from oil and [if] it goes
34:46 down to zero
34:48 uh well we have collapsed not just
34:50 collapse of the oil industry
34:52 we have collapsed globally of the global
34:54 industrial civilization this is what we
34:56 are looking at at the moment . . . “

Or, have 5 years? {unlikely?}.
“The greatest threat to humanity on Earth is the escalating Arctic atmospheric methane buildup, caused by the destabilization of subsea methane hydrates. This subsea Arctic methane hydrate destabilization will go out of control in 2024 and lead to a catastrophic heatwave by 2026.”
https://arctic-news.blogspot.com/2021/05/extinction-by-2027.html?fbclid=IwAR3FEKqILrzS_Le1Z4LRmEvqoSRz6p2rBIFjbNmY1NFB_rHeU4RpDT8u2Zg

4 11 2021
UnhingedBecauseLucid

You can tell your friend Bruce that he wrote a great post … and that I Oh so (!) sighed of relief to get the “Affluence as driver of Overshoot trumps efficiency gains” get some airplay … the “money saved” spent to buy something else conundrum is something I often think about; when I do, sometimes it makes me laugh, sometimes I get filled with dread … but never both of them simultaneously … so I guess that’s a good sign 😉

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