Step 4 - Redirect Investment into Energy Production/Saving
Salvaging any kind of energy future will require a massive restructuring of our current economic system and, in particular, our financial institutions. When I say restructuring, I mean mostly elimination. Most of the banks, Wall Street, and many insurance companies should be disposed of in due course. In our infinite wisdom, however, we are making every effort to bail these institutions out so that consumers will be able to get loans and we can start happily consuming for the sake of consuming again. We should leave all future banking and investment management to credit union-like entities. Local savings establishments that will direct local monies (representing energy available to do work) into local energy infrastructure projects. No more Federal Reserve, no more fractional reserve banking, no more stock markets for gambling, nothing left resembling the current madhouse of phoney fiat currency.
Since I am pretty certain our government and its shadows will not suddenly wake up in time to avert a truly monumental disaster — they will not forego the bailout strategy because everybody (in power) believes in the old economic model — I am offering this more in the spirit of what to do after the house of cards collapses. When we get to cleaning up the mess (assuming there is an us to do the clean up) we will need to focus on what really matters in this world, which is energy flow.
There are two ways to increase the availability of high-grade energy for economic work. The first obvious way is to generate more power. Here our options are not as good as they might seem. Solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal are all candidates for generating electricity but no where near to the scale that our modern industrial world needs to support the kind of economy we in the West have grown used to. This is particularly the case if you imagine serving the population that will occupy Earth in 2050. And if you really think we are going to meet our Millennium Goals of equity and the elimination of poverty with wind, etc. you really are smoking something powerful.
The second way to increase energy available is to conserve the uses of what you have. In step 3 I recommended elimination of discretionary energy uses, like Las Vegas, for example. Such a move would conserve a lot of what we have left in the ground for this step. It would have been the rational as well as sapient thing to do! But I am pessimistic about how sapient our species is, let alone our leaders. So this step (4) would be something of a last gasp attempt to use whatever fossil fuel resources we have after a crash wisely. The type of conservation I refer to in this current step is based on investment in efficiency.
As with all things energy, both new generation from non-conventional sources, and efficiency improvements are not as straightforward as one might think. The only way to assess the goodness of any proposed investments is to use Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROEI) as the analytic tool for determining efficacy and payoff. We need to order our potential investments in descending order just as we would do with traditional ROI analysis of potential projects. Only EROEI investments with potentials of 10:1 or greater will probably have economic viability in the long run. But this analysis must include all relevant inputs, including amortized fixed capital energy costs in order to be meaningful. Sloppy, first-order only kinds of analyses will only lead to short-term apparent payoffs but will leave the underlying infrastructure (plants and equipment) exposed to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
One benefit from investments in the energy infrastructure is that it can be done labor intensive. That is, it can create meaningful jobs, especially for younger workers. Improving the thermal efficiencies of buildings, retrofitting insulation, for example, is labor intensive. It isn't glamorous, but after the crash there won't be any glamorous jobs anymore, so what? We will need an army of people acting as energy auditors, clamoring over every inch of the human-built world looking for energy leaks (this actually includes water leaks and any resource wastage).
The other main investment that will need to be made is the development of a food infrastructure that can support as many people as possible. Agri-industry, and especially most meat production, will be over. We need to design human labor intensive farms using low carbon inputs. Actually, agricultural infrastructure is the one area where there might be a place for limited biofuels in the short run. But anything that removes more nutrients from the soils can not be sustained, so biofuels would have to be shown not to do so.
Food is our #1 energy source. It has to be designed to run off of solar energy exclusively — photosynthesis mostly, but local photovoltaics and wind too. The transport of food to market will need to be designed around something like the electrification of rail (come to think of it, installing and repairing railroad tracks is labor intensive). Additionally, the impacts of global warming and water shortages have to be considered.
We need to stop spending our energy on NASCAR and reality TV (oxymoron alert). Take that same energy and direct it toward producing tools and institutions that will create sustainable energy in the future.
Even so, we still have a problem if we are trying to feed and shelter every one of 6.7 billion people (8 - 9 billion by the time we got around to it). And that is putting it mildly. No one knows for sure but right now it looks to me like we would be lucky to produce enough sustainable energy infrastructure (farm and industrial) to support more than 1/10th of the current population, let alone a larger one. And that still assumes people will be living extremely modest lifestyles as compared with today's western flamboyance.
None of this will be feasible under the kind of governance structures we have today. To invest wisely requires that the governance actually be wise. My emphasis above on local decision making and local investment speaks to the notion of operational-level controls on the front line of life. But to assure that global-scale efficiencies are being realized will require a tactical-logistical (coordination) level of control as well. And to chart the long-term future of civilization will take strategic-level thinking. I'm imagining that these will evolve naturally after the crash and restart. It all depends on how the survivors follow through in re-establishing a society. It all depends if they are sapient or not.
As mentioned above, population is still the number one issue with regard to fixing any of the other problems. My essay on The End of Growth still reverberates in my subconscious. Some glimmers of how to solve the problem have started to emerge, but no one, not even me, will like what is bubbling up. Of course, what is to like about any of this? Wouldn't it be much easier to just assume everything will go on like it is (only more of it) forever?
I find myself more distracted by this situation and the need to apply analysis to it, to understand its implications. If the premises in my essay are valid then we are in a double-bind situation that will require radical breaking of boundaries to solve. It is hard to say where that will lead.