We will never again have as much energy as now – it’s time to adapt

5 03 2015

LOOK…..  it’s not just me anymore, the concept might be going viral soon…!

The Conversation

By Patrick Moriarty, Monash University

In the year 1800, the world used only about 10 million tonnes of coal – renewable energy, mainly biomass, dominated world’s energy supply.

By 2013, fossil fuels together supplied more than 11 billion tonnes of coal equivalent, or 87% of global commercial energy. Renewable energy sources supplied under 9% and nuclear power the remainder.

In the coming decades, fossil fuel depletion and the need to respond to climate change will ensure that fossil fuel use will fall. Because it is unlikely that either renewable or nuclear energy can take over the dominant role fossil fuels presently enjoy, I argue that the energy available to humanity will decline, and we will need to adapt to a lower energy future.

Fossil fuels’ twin constraints

The likely future production profile for fossil fuels is controversial. Nevertheless, even the International Energy Agency now accepts that peak production for conventional oil has already occurred. One recent study even argues that if business-as-usual fossil fuel use continues, combined use could peak in a decade or so.

Unconventional fossil fuel resources are probably large. However, their monetary, environmental, and carbon dioxide costs per unit of energy delivered are much larger than for conventional fuels, limiting their future use.

Especially in the US, much hope has been placed on unconventional (tight) gas, extracted by fracking. But a recent study of tight gas fields casts doubt on this optimism. Actual gas production could in future be much lower than official US forecasts. It could even peak in the next decade or so, then decline rapidly.

If the world does take climate change seriously, we would then have to leave most fossil fuels in the ground, which would be bad news indeed for fossil fuel corporations.

Could nuclear energy fill the gap?

Global nuclear output locally peaked in 2006, and was still below that value in 2013. Nuclear’s share of global electricity peaked at 17% in 1993, and by 2013 had fallen to 11%. Even the US Energy Information Administration doesn’t expect much improvement; they forecast average annual growth of 2.5% for nuclear power globally out to 2040, compared with 1.5% for all energy sources.

A key problem in rapidly expanding nuclear output is an ageing reactor fleet – in mid-2013 the weighted average age for reactors was 28 years, and rising. Over 190 nuclear plants (45%) worldwide have operated for 30 years or more. Given this ageing nuclear fleet, much new construction will be needed merely to replace retiring plants, and will not add to net capacity.

Nuclear energy is also very expensive. The cost of a 1000 megawatt plant in the US in 2009 was estimated at US$9 billion. Decommissioning old plants adds a further heavy cost, and could take decades.

The UK government now estimates that clean-up costs for the Sellafield reprocessing plant alone will be £80 billion. And despite nearly 60 years of commercial nuclear power, no permanent waste disposal repositories are in operation.

A final point. Uranium reserves may not be sufficient to support for long even a modest upturn in nuclear power, should it ever occur.

Renewable energy: essential but limited

The world has a variety of renewable sources available. Bio-mass and hydro-power are the two leading ones, but wind, geothermal, tidal and solar energy all presently contribute to global energy supply.

The only abundant renewable sources are wind and solar energy (and Australia is well supplied with both), but both are intermittent energy sources: they don’t generate without wind or sunlight. Hence reliance on renewables, not only for electricity but for other energy uses, will require conversion and storage of these intermittent energy sources.

This need for conversion and storage will raise renewable costs for each unit of energy delivered to the consumer. There is however, a further problem. Obviously, for any energy source to be viable, it must produce more energy output than the various energy inputs needed to construct and operate it – the energy ratio must be much greater than one. This ratio is already lower for renewable than for fossil fuel sources, and the need for energy storage and conversion will further lower it.

All energy sources have environmental costs, including renewable energy. Those for large hydro systems are well-known. Bio-energy crops such as ethanol from corn compete with crops grown for food for water and fertile soils. The adverse effects of these two renewable sources are better-known mainly because their output is highest.

Our low-energy future

The world will eventually have to rely again on renewable energy sources, just as it did at the start of the fossil fuel era around 1800. There is a big difference this time: in 1800 the world’s population was only about a billion. Today it is 7.3 billion, and still rising. We’ll never again have the high-energy society of the carbon civilisation.

Instead we’ll have to prepare for a low-energy future. Improving technical efficiency of energy use can help, but so far has not prevented global energy use from steadily rising.

Using less energy means less use of equipment — vehicles, air-conditioning, and other household appliances. Buildings will need to use passive solar energy more for heating, cooling, and even lighting, and generate some power from rooftop solar systems. Gardens could grow more fruit and vegetables. Households in dry regions can install tanks for rainwater.

What changes are needed for cities and their transport systems? For transport we must shift from our obsession with vehicular mobility to a focus on accessibility. Public transport will need to increase its share of a much smaller vehicular travel task. Activities will need to be more localised. Non-motorised modes can then be a major form of urban travel.

So we’ll need social efficiency improvements – we’ll need to rediscover ways of satisfying our needs with less use of energy-using devices. We can learn from earlier generations – how did they cope with far lower energy levels? We might even have something to learn from the more creative practices of presently low-energy societies.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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23 02 2015

Be prepared to be regaled by truly stunning photography, even when it’s ugly…..  A must watch film.  Anyone who enjoys their cushy lifestyle needs to know at what cost.  Share widely.

We are living in exceptional times. Scientists tell us that we have 10 years to change the way we live, avert the depletion of natural resources and the catastrophic evolution of the Earth’s climate.

The stakes are high for us and our children. Everyone should take part in the effort, and HOME has been conceived to take a message of mobilization out to every human being.

For this purpose, HOME needs to be free. A patron, the PPR Group, made this possible. EuropaCorp, the distributor, also pledged not to make any profit because Home is a non-profit film.

HOME has been made for you : share it! And act for the planet.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand

HOME official website

PPR is proud to support HOME

HOME is a carbon offset movie

More information about the Planet

Reality Check……

25 12 2013

Merry Christmas from Guy Mc Pherson.  And me.


Money as Energy

21 12 2013

It suddenly hit me the other day that it was the first oil shocks of the 80’s when oil skyrocketed due to the Arab oil embargo, that started Western Civilisation on its merry way to conversion from an oil powered economy to a money powered one.  The looming climate/energy/economic crisis is stirring up the old Left/Right divide in global industrial politics…. This rift derives from the two core dogmas of what constitutes wealth: does wealth come from human ingenuity and innovation, or is it found in nature?  Is human capacity the source, or a by-product of real power?

I think the two alternative paradigms implied by these questions, have shaped the history of the ‘civilised’ world luckycountryfar more so than the now redundant Left-Right political ideologies.  These increasingly conflicted paradigms can be described as faith in wealth and power from “human brilliance” (by which I mean “blind faith in ingenuity and technology to overcome physical limitations”) versus the belief that power and wealth come from control of “holes in the ground”

In the new world order of energy descent and climate change, both these dogmas are failing, and worse, we increasingly see the believers of both paradigms at war in a futile battle for global domination……

If one doesn’t understand the nature of this ideological battle, as critical for environmentalists and social activists, then it is unlikely that the reader will also understand the science behind Climate Change and Peak Oil.

This important ideological divide has not been recognised by historians or the blogosphere (let alone politicians!), and so it is very easy to come to the conclusion that one or the other of these paradigms is either benign or lethal, without truly understanding the nature and implications of these ideologies.

Climate activists in particular tend to focus on the fossil energy industries as the “enemies” (both for the Carbon emissions and/or funding climate change denial), but naturally see any parties accepting the new climate change agenda as allies. I believe that many of the global players promoting the climate agenda are as dangerous as those denying that agenda. How can this be so?

Ecology and Human Ingenuity

peak-ff-oilI am sure that the current peak in global oil production is an effective (net) energy peak for humanity.  This is as good as it gets, and we are entering an era of ongoing and permanent “energy descent.” The scale of this change is unprecedented in human history.  Every past era of humanity has gone from one low yield energy source (firewood) to a higher yield one (charcoal, then coal, then oil, then nuclear).  Transitioning to a world of less energy requires energy literacy (sadly lacking everywhere I look) so that we can learn how to make do with less, and avoid costly mistakes when we can least afford them.  The era of exponential energy growth, abundance, and affordability has left the populace and the politicians of the industrial world blinded, and without the intuitive understanding of energy needed to deal with the conundrum we now face……

Everything, from ecosystems to human economies, can be viewed through the lens of energy flows.  Since energy energyflowsbehaves according to universal laws (not least entropy…), much can be learned from studying these flows….  This first occurred to me twenty years ago when I had an epiphany and realised that everything is powered by the sun.  And that the energy we consume everyday are flows from this primary source of energy, everything…

When any system, whether economic, biological or ecological, it is always fed by an increasing amount of energy. The result is an increase in the complexity of that system.  For example, during the current era of the growth of extraction of fossil fuels, human economies, communications, education systems, laws, technologies etc have all developed to unbelievable levels of complexity.  The availability of the concentrated solar energy that is fossil energy sets exact limits on what any system can achieve in terms of both scale and complexity.  This occurs in all ecological systems; and man made systems are not immune!  A loss in either energy concentration, or rate of flow results in the lowering of civilisational complexity.  This energy descent is either slow, or, occurs in potentially catastrophic events.

I am absolutely convinced that the unrestrained faith in human ingenuity and innovation to overcome physical limitations, is just as ridiculous as the equally doomed faith in digging holes in the earth for wealth, since the latter utterly relies on  significant quantities of non renewable, cheap, and abundant energy resources…… especially oil, the master resource….

Blind faith in human ingenuity

Faith in human brilliance to overcome physical limitations is widespread and pervasive in society.  It’s almost ageofenlightenmentbecome a religion.  No… it has become a religion. Since the Age of Enlightenment, the marvel of cultural and technological complexity has created hubris about our achievements that is, to some degree understandable, so dazzling it has become; nature, has replaced the humility of ancient spirituality that comes with the wizardry and mystery of nature itself…..

Social justice advocates and environmentalists, bureaucrats, politicians, and diplomats believe the imposition of regulations, rules, and laws, arrived at through negotiation and/or compromise are all that is needed to achieve collective wealth, and its wise control.

Technologists, educators, and journalists also tend towards the belief that thinking, discussion, debate, and consensus are the way to solve problems.  Economists and business entrepreneurs share this faith in human ingenuity, without question.  They, particular, have been much more zealous participants in focusing the tools of science to create wealth though increased production and market forces.  There is no merit and truth in these perspectives, because they are incomplete as they ignore the energy base which made these ideals possible in the first instance….

The apex of this great human project, to free humanity from the forces of nature, is held by bankers in particular, the all seeing masters of the lubricant that makes the whole system of industrial modernity function: money.

wallstreetbankerThe bankers, and their army of drones in the growing financial services, insurance and real estate economies not only believe the continuous growth in financial value and debts controlled by the magic of the market is the pinnacle of human evolution, but also religiously think that the energy/environment problem will be solved by the market forces they have put in place……  thus bringing to existence technological and organisational innovation that will bypass the limits of nature’s capacity to deliver the essential resources we now take for granted, and absorb our waste…

Recently, a Senate enquiry into Australia’s future fuel security (in 2007) saw the head of ABARE, (who have been notoriously wrong for years) challenged about relying on market forces to deal with future energy crises. Famously, he replied, “if the price of eggs goes high enough, roosters will lay eggs”.  I don’t think he believed this to be literally true, but I could not have come up with a more breathtaking rhetorical expression of fanatical faith in markets to save us if I’d tried!  I’m certain it was a very sobering moment for the energetically literate followers of the Senate enquiry……!

Money as Energy

The old saying that “it is the love of money, rather than money itself, which is the source of evil in the world”, is Jesus-Money-Lendersworth repeating here.  This ancient wisdom, the love of money (greed), was once upon a time acknowledged as the force behind the innovation of interest generation, which must be repaid by growth in our extraction of wealth from nature. It is more than ironic that ignoring this taboo against interest-bearing money in the Judeo-Christian tradition was one of the drivers that supercharged Western civilisation into the global industrial culture it is today….

Beyond the creation of debt-based interest-bearing money, the creation of fiat currency, inconvertible paper money made legal tender by a government decree, is an extreme expression of the love of money.  In nearly all societies throughout history, the abstraction of money was backed by a commodity of recognised and lasting value like silver and gold.  Fiat currency gets its value by order of a powerful sovereign and the collective faith of the populace.  As long as we agree that it’s worth something….  it is.  But should confidence ever fail……

1922-Gold-Certificate-Gold-Coin-Note-xf-31606Independence from available stocks of precious metals has many advantages in complex economies…. However, fiat currencies are more vulnerable to systemic greed and corruption by simply printing money, along with all the massively complex variants of this process that have kept the US dollar as the global currency since the abandonment of the gold standard.  It has now been calculated that the true worth of gold today, if it were to represent the worth of the global economy, would be over $200,000 an ounce.  It’s no wonder the value of gold is being manipulated down… because if it wasn’t, you could never afford all those gold contacts in your computers and smart phones!

The complex financial devices and the collective faith which have been the basis of decades of economic growth, also make the global economy vulnerable to collapse.  Analysis of the global energy situation points to a gradual loss of technological and cultural complexity as inevitable.  However, a sudden collapse of human civilisation certainly does not.  The out of control power of money and markets is leading us as rapidly towards the collapse of human civilisation as the shortcomings or impacts of technology, including/especially the burning of fossil fuels.

The frantic activity in the material economy that is damaging our life support systems is above all driven by a dysfunctional debt-based money system that must grow by its own design, just to survive.  Our monetary system requires constant growth to fend off deflation. The money system currently in place has no neutral gear, and no “steady-state” option.  And a growing money supply requires a corresponding increase in resource extraction, otherwise runaway inflation would be the result.  The “love of money” building on the more fundamental and widespread belief in “human brilliance” has become, not only a source of moral corruption but also the supercharger of environmental collapse.

It is utterly ironic, that our systems of financial accounting have become so disconnected from the real world.  While we may have come to expect such lack of understanding from bean counters, awareness of environmental crises does not necessarily imply an energetic literacy, and many environmentalists have failed to grasp the importance of energetic limits to the wider human project in the quest for politically acceptable solutions to the climate catastrophe.

Ecological history and ecological economics have provided a growing array of evidence to strengthen the belief that real wealth is a gift from nature.  Systems of ecological accounting that provide more concrete and numeric measures of real wealth have been a powerful influence on my understanding of how the world really operates.

Unfortunately such academic fields of inquiry remain unfunded and ignored in a world dominated by the magic of money and the latest techno fix that helps accelerate the extraction of more real wealth from nature.  We have become dazzled by our own brilliance, and are blind to what the future brings…….


Sustainability is a myth

4 08 2012

Some years ago, Permaculture Noosa invited Peter Fries (pronounced freeze), teacher, environmentalist, writer, broadcaster, and communications consultant to the United Nations, to speak at our monthly meeting.  At this meeting, he uttered the words “nothing we do is sustainable”.  I was probably the only person in the room who actually both agreed with and understood what he had just said…….  Now, I have come across someone else who thinks this way too, Guy McPherson.  There’s a link to his blog (Nature bats last) in the sidebar on this site.

I had never heard of Guy until I saw an off the cuff comment Nicole Foss wrote on Facebook about him.  I followed the clues Google offered up, and truly wondered how I had missed him, considering how I immerse myself in the collapse blogosphere……!  Guy and I think so much alike, I now consider him a soul mate of sorts.  And it is heartening to know I’m not the only one “out there” who believes we need to bring the system down before we can fix any of the current predicaments.

What Guy has to say about the unfolding Climate Change though is pretty scary.  Some of his research even “predicts” quasi human extinction by mid century, which is so mind boggling, not even I can get my head around it….  But then again, isn’t that what exponential growth of anything do?  Take you by surprise?

Sustainability is a nice word but it is meaningless in the context of the real economy and life in Australia.  Or anywhere else for that matter….  There is no such thing as sustainable business, sustainable energy, sustainable health or sustainable anything.  Life will always be dynamic, ephemeral, changing – it simply is not sustainable.  Nature has built-in obsolescence.  As Guy thinks, Nature bats last.  She takes no prisoners.

“Sustainability” is a term that is now attached to every conceivable policy document that is published by government and business.  The very word has been hijacked, now used with “Sustainable Growth”….  I mean, really?   Want a planning application – is it sustainable?  Want a house – is it sustainable?  Want an airport – is it sustainable?  Want a Nation for ourselves – is it sustainable?  Everybloodything is now judged against some yardstick of sustainability.  But how can you measure sustainability?  What objective criteria can be applied?  I can claim that this blog is sustainable and worthy of being read purely on the basis that it is still here and has been for the past four years – but I can’t guarantee that it will be tomorrow.  No-one can.  Sustainability is a myth, a weasel word invented to distract us from Reality.

Of course, we all want things to last and continue into the future but sadly this is not how societies develop. The Roman Empire was sustained for several centuries by an applied ‘civilising’ combination of social elitism, armed brutality and control of the denarii coinage through taxation (rings a bell…?).  Nation-building and politics haven’t changed much since then.  However, even that Empire was not ‘sustainable’.  And neither is the current one……

So now, let me introduce you to Guy McPherson.  It’s a 3/4 hour presentation he made while in NZ.