Step 3 - Eliminating Unnecessary Consumption
We have come to believe that progress means more, bigger, faster stuff. And why not? This has always been the case in the past. As civilization has climbed up the energy availability curve, phenomena like economies of scale dominated our experience. Being an unwise but clever species it never occurred to us that there was a better way to treat our access to abundant energy, to think long-term about being conservative with our resources and not just expand just because we could. As science and technology demonstrated more capabilities in terms of providing us with more conveniences, more food, more entertainment, and so on we simply did what any animal would. We took the goodies and came to expect more.
But now that the energy is no longer expanding, indeed is beginning to shrink, we are faced with a whole new set of phenomena that we have never had to face before. And these phenomena simply preclude our old way of thinking. We can no longer engage in our profligate habits of consuming, throwing away, and then consuming even more. That stage of human evolution is over. And the sooner we all realize this and set about adapting the better we will be in the long-run.
Our energy situation is bleak. Though the data on the rate of energy diminishment is not that great, the overall model is clear. The combination of oil production plateauing (peak oil) with the declining energy return on energy invested (EROEI) means that each production unit of oil is declining in net energy available to do economic work. More energy is being put into the recovery of oil for each unit we do recover. This means that there is less to supply diesel, jet, and gasoline fuels to the production and consumption economy. Since both natural gas and coal are extracted and processed using oil-based fuels, this means there will be less of these as well. Oil is the king pin of our energy supplies.
Graph 1. Model of non-renewable (fossil fuels) energy and the combined effects of peak production and diminishing EROEI.
The above graph depicts this model rather dramatically. Since the data have yet to be gathered in sufficiently comprehensive fashion, this model is speculative. It is meant only to show the relationships between the variables. Total raw energy is what we extract from the ground prior to processing it. Energy invested for extraction is shown lagging the total energy curve. This is because the early oil, coal, and gas finds were more easily extracted, hence raw energy grew more rapidly. This accounts for the growth of net energy available to do economic work well after the easy fossil fuels were extracted. As it took increasingly more energy to invest in extraction the net energy started to slow and then started to decline even while we were extracting more raw energy. This is when things started to get out of kilter.
Shown also is the growth of wealth produced by the economy. Since wealth is measured in monetary terms there is a disconnect between the measure of wealth and the availability of energy to produce it. Also, since technology has allowed for increases in efficiency (productivity) in the uses of energy the dollar value of wealth could go on growing even as the energy began to decline. But sooner or later we would feel the effects. Efficiency cannot improve forever. There are physical limits to how efficient any work process can become.
Note the gap (grey colored) between net energy and wealth production as net energy was growing. During this very favorable economic condition we could get by with borrowing against the future. That is, we could order up work to be done at that time that could go toward current discretionary spending — like building bigger homes and manufacturing bigger, faster cars. During this period we got used to the idea of financing on the bet that in the future we would just be producing ever more wealth. And that is because that is the way it had always been!
Now we have entered a period of diminishing net energy, meaning there is nothing being produced in the future against which we can borrow today. We are going deeper and deeper into deficit with no hope of powering our way out with more energy available. There won't be any. Nor can alternative energy sources, such as solar and nuclear, even begin to compensate for the loss of fossil fuel energies. The scale of the problem is simply too great and the time it takes to adopt new energy regimes too long to think that we will somehow keep our economic activities up this way.
So finally we get to the gist of this post. There is no way we can preserve our previous wasteful ways of consuming energy. We are not going to succeed in spending our way out of this depression with any kind of stimulus package. We will simply print and throw (bad) money after previous bad money. It will get us nowhere and the sooner we get this the sooner we can start to adapt to these new conditions and preserve some kind of civilization to build upon in the future. That is why I called Step 1 realizing that we have a problem and what sort of problem it is.
The very first thing we need to do, once the majority grasp the situation presented above, is to use this economic downturn to our advantage. The first action item, which is going to happen anyway, is to stop producing discretionary products and services and shipping things around the world for consumption. We don't need to be building more play things, entertainments, and specialty foods. We don't need extraordinary medical/health care — and believe me when I say this, being someone who will most likely suffer as a result. We need to focus on basics of life.
The problem is that there are so many people employed in sectors of the economy providing these discretionary products and services. But they are going to lose their jobs anyway as the economy spirals downward and people naturally limit their discretionary spending. So rather than lament and try all kinds of stupid things to get people buying these goods and services, we should be extending unemployment benefits and pumping everything we can into job retraining. Retraining, that is, for jobs in the alternative energy production and energy saving sectors. Hair dressers will need to learn how to install insulation.
Energy conservation will begin by not trying to do the things that expend energy on trivial pastimes. Nearly everyone is going to have to turn to labor like growing food and shoring up leaky buildings. No one will have time for the latest blockbuster movie, or watching mindless 'reality' TV shows. No one will have the wherewithal to go skiing every weekend or going to that big NASCAR race. We had better get used to the idea and get to work figuring out how we are going to get people to work on real problem solving work.
Stopping the production of discretionary stuff will not save nearly enough energy, but it will be a start. It will also serve as a wake-up call to those who cling sadly to the glories of the past when we could buy new wardrobes every year, throwing away what we no longer wanted. It will be a first action to be followed by more substantive actions.
It is likely that the next 100 years are going to be very rough and that we will have to buckle down to hard work (human labor) just to preserve a semblance of civilization. Being less than truly sapient beings we have been extraordinarily foolish in spending our energy inheritance (fossil fuels) and allowing ourselves to ignore the laws of nature in growing our population beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. Instead of a half of billion people having very comfortable, but not extravagant, lives and using our fossil fuels wisely, we have nearly seven billion folk, most of whom are living in poverty while a few fat cats live the high life and think nothing of that discrepancy. Some day, perhaps in several hundred years, we will have reduced our population to a sustainable level. We will be getting the majority of our power from renewable sources. People will be satisfied with an adequate per capita consumption rate that is matched to our capacity to generate that power. Balance will be restored. The big question is whether it will be restored because humans intended it, made a strategic plan and carried it out, or nature took over and restored the balance in the traditional biological way. If the former is to be the case then we had better get to work right now. This economic downturn is a signal if we are capable of interpreting it properly. It is also, believe it or not, an opportunity to start doing things wisely. Unfortunately, so far, with the neo-classical economists running the show, I don't think we are going for a new, better world. We are trying to restore the old, failed world of mindless consumption by mostly unhappy people.