Yes, I’ve been bashing away at this book idea since August 2018 and on re-reading this section, I felt it might as well go on the blog. Comments welcome (I think!)
Ellie Harris looked at herself in the mirror as she combed what was left of her hair. She was 55 years old, tall, slim, with an air of refinement. Ellie had terminal cancer. She had initially been diagnosed in 2006 but responded well to treatment; she had been in remission from 2008 until last year, 2014.
Ellie had been active in green politics for thirty years or more but was always too self-doubting to be any kind of public figure; more comfortable behind the scenes, helping those with the strength of character to take an environmental message into finance-focused political arenas. The environment had long since been reduced to an accounting ‘externality’—not abusing it in some way costs shareholders money.
Ellie had no idea how to speak out for the environment effectively; one whiff of ‘you can’t have perpetual growth on a finite planet’ and few heard the rest of your message. She believed in her heart of hearts that business-as-usual powered by ‘clean, green alternatives’, which included nuclear power, ‘clean’ coal and fracked gas, was a delusion. No one could tell her how millions of tonnes of anything would be mined in a future without fossil fuels. How does one make a wind turbine without a well-oiled global industrial complex to supply and process raw materials, to manufacture parts, to deliver them around the world? Preparing for a future without fossil fuels should be preparing for a very different world—de-globalised and decentralised. And it means expecting a future with less stuff, not more. But that kind of talk won’t win you an election.
A reprieve from death changed her perspective, unsurprisingly, and she felt she had nothing to lose. For years, Ellie had been researching a whole host of environmental issues, hoping to find that all-important mix of reality and hope that would galvanise enough people to radically change how they, and by extension we, lived. We needed way more communities to live off-grid than currently do, and to live off the land. We will not solve the problem of waste by replacing plastic with anything plant-based—apart from the fact that mountains of compostable waste are not the answer, where are all these plants going to be grown and how many do we need? Whatever the topic, the conclusion always seemed to be the same—it is not that we live, but how we live. Everything that happens on Earth is a culmination of the current batch of human spirit and will. And how ‘we’, the sum of all human life on Earth, live is by taking and taking from nature with little regard for the damage we are doing, and even less gratitude for the gift of life we receive. Most troubling, the more of us there are, the less there is to go around.
The problem as Ellie saw it was how to decouple ‘progress’, whatever that means, from consumption. “I don’t care how hard it is”, she said to an audience of economics students during one of her earlier talks in Edinburgh, “we have to do it. Maybe it will take several generations, maybe we’ll procrastinate some more and our society will collapse around us, but some of us have to start now. Whether we like it or not, resource depletion and population growth mean we are facing a future of less. If we want to work towards maintaining great achievements like medicine, sanitation, and electricity then we have to wrench progress away from economic growth. Imagine how we might live if progress related to environmental repair and inner growth of human character, rather than debt and destruction.” Ellie felt for the economics students and wondered how they were processing the immediate aftermath of the global financial meltdown—it was October 2008.
“The problem with ‘peak oil’ is that no one wants to take it seriously”, Ellie said to the sea of mostly young faces before her. “And because the media only seems concerned about high oil prices, a big number being inherently more interesting than a small one, it misses the point that as oil becomes harder to extract—a major component of the theory of peak oil—producers have to make more money per barrel to pay for the extra work done in getting it out of the ground and to market. Oil prices may well fall too low for producers, rather than rise too high for consumers, and oil companies may cease trading if prices remain too low for too long.” Ellie was trying to explain to these students of economics why the price of oil was an important indicator of economic health and both very low and very high oil prices should be seen as warnings of instability.
“Oil reserves aren’t worth squat if you can’t get your hands on the oil.” Ellie’s money analogy to explain flow rates worked for most students, not just economics students: “Imagine you won a competition. The prize is one million dollars in a bank account. The only stipulation is that you cannot withdraw more than £50 per day, each day, no leaving it for a few months and withdrawing a larger amount later. Still a pretty handy prize but not the same as having access to the whole million; it’s not the size of the resource but the flow rate that matters. How quickly does the oil flow to market? How quickly does the money flow into your hands? If you survive for 55 years, you’ll get your prize—and find out what £50 buys you in 55 years’ time. Now imagine you can only withdraw £10 per day.” After a short pause, Ellie moved on to her next slide. The analogy raises questions such as what can you do with £50, or £1, on any given day or how desperate for a small amount of money are you, and how far away is this ATM—how much work do you have to do for your daily fifty and is it worth it?
“There is a saying”, she continued, “that the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone. True; it ended because we found new, better materials to make tools from. Those people may then go on to say that the fossil fuel age won’t end because we run out of fossil fuels. That’s also true. We will never suck every last drop of fossil fuel from the Earth, although our behaviour in the early 21st century suggests that we are giving it a bloody good try.” A ripple of slightly nervous laughter moved through the auditorium. Ellie believed that humour was vital in most situations, although it did sometimes prove hard to judge where the audience was at with laughing in the face of oblivion.
“It is true because the point comes when it simply won’t be economically viable to do so. The important thing to note is that the Palaeolithic world was brimming with alternatives to stone, just waiting for a mind smart enough to use them. Here, today, as the glaciers melt and the soils erode, we live in a complex yet fragile global economic system, built up over millennia of relative climatic stability since the end of the last Ice Age. A system which uses more and more energy, even while claiming to have become cleaner and more efficient. There is no alternative. There are energy alternatives, plural, but nothing to replace the fossil fuels, especially oil, on a like-for-like basis. This is our problem”.
Ellie’s next slide showed the cover of a book called ‘The party’s over: oil, war, and the fate of industrial societies’ by Richard Heinberg, written five years earlier. “You could start in worse places than this to gain a better understanding of the energy crisis”, she said. “But before we go on, are there any questions?” A hand went up.
“Isn’t it true that the Sun puts out enough energy in one hour to power the entire needs of the Earth for a year? So even if we are not very efficient at gathering it, surely there is more than enough solar energy to replace fossil fuels?” Ellie thought for a moment—she had not wanted to bore the economics students with too much on energy basics but maybe she should.
“That’s a good question and makes me realise that I haven’t really explained what energy is if, indeed, anyone can. So let me do that, then I’ll come back to your question.
“The best definition I know is that energy is the ability to do work, the ability to make change happen. Within any system devoid of energy, nothing happens. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed—we can change energy from one form to another, say using sunlight to excite atoms and generate electricity in a solar cell, but we cannot create energy. The First Law dictates that the total quantity of energy in the Universe stays the same. The Second Law of Thermodynamics refers to the quality of energy: as energy is transferred or transformed, more and more of it is wasted, often as low-quality heat or maybe sound. Converting energy from one form to another is inherently inefficient as it always changes from high to low quality when work is performed; electricity is an example of a high-quality form of energy. In some cases, the amount of energy lost as heat can be as high as 90 percent of the total energy involved.
“So, to your question. There are many figures for the amount of energy reaching the Earth from the Sun and I agree, the Sun produces an incomprehensibly large-sounding amount of energy, but your question raises a few concerns. First, our industrial systems were built the way they were because we had access to the massive energy store we call fossil fuels: coal replaces wind and water for milling and turning, and replaces wood for heating; the wonder-substance oil was developed initially as a lighting fuel but its potential as a transport fuel to replace coal was quickly seen; and last but not least, not-really-that-clean gas is a fossil fuel with fewer carbon atoms per unit of released energy and, therefore, lower—not zero—CO2 emissions when it is burned. But gas has its problems too, mostly around transport; in some cases it is worth using the energy required to cool and liquefy gas for transportation. In other cases, the value of gas is so low that it is flared off—just an inconvenient by-product of the oil industry.
“The main reason this is important to you, economists of the future, is that our economy is as bound to energy as it is to the environment. Our economy is based on producing goods and services for others to purchase. So having a good, long think about what goods and services we will need in a future with less energy available to power our economy could dictate the success of your career.”
The next limiting factor
“Yes, oil’s liquid nature makes it much easier to transport by tanker or pipeline than coal or gas, but oil is also a raw material, which many forget about. We are not changing our electricity grid to work on renewable energy. All renewables, in my opinion, should be part of a decentralised grid. Who funds such a massive change of our energy infrastructure and wouldn’t they then own what they had paid for? Ideas like that scare me more than the lights going out because our cultural values remain stuck in the dark ages of kings and peasants. Only today, the peasants think they have rights to things like heating and light. We have to understand that the modern world we live in came about thanks to cheap, abundant oil. The days of cheap, abundant oil are over, whether we like it or not, so what happens to our world?”
Once Ellie got started, she found it hard to be brief; she remembered well how difficult it was to first comprehend our world without fossil fuels. If we really knew the timeline, what would we do and when? Our modern world needs the energy from oil and Ellie could not imagine how an orderly, organised, chosen transition away from fossil fuels could ever take place. Humans survived for over a million years without access to fossil fuels—many still do today— so obviously it is possible. But from where we are today, is it probable? As the song says, ‘If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor’. That’s a lot of people choosing to live with less—or being otherwise compelled to live with less.
“So”, Ellie continued, “that brings us on to the second concern about assuming that the Sun can provide for all of our needs: our ‘needs’ are what, exactly? We need clothes, yes, but do we need fashion? We need to be able to travel to buy food and to work but do we need private cars at all, let alone one each? But these industries provide employment; all production provides employment for someone, somewhere. It might not be a good job, but that’s another story.
“Because oil was so cheap and abundant, and access to seemingly unlimited energy so exhilarating, we built a world we thought would never end. Now it is ending, wealth is diminishing because our energy supply is diminishing. We would not be turning to unconventional fossil fuels like tar sands and we would not be fracking the land to release tightly-bound oil and gas if we had options. The good stuff, the cheap, low-sulphur, easy-to-access ‘conventional’ oil—the Goldilocks oil— is getting harder to find. It takes more work, more energy input, per barrel of useful energy out, as I said in relation to the price of oil. But it’s more palatable to look to the politics, which are always there but may obscure what’s really going on. A couple of years ago, George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech was all about the US becoming energy-independent of the Saudis—. Yeah, that’s also another story. I’m telling you, Google some of this stuff—join the dots and question everything, especially your own assumptions!
“And finally, as we don’t have all night,” Ellie continued, “even if we did solve the problem of how to make the Sun’s energy usable by our infrastructure to sustain how we live today, what is the next limiting factor—fertile soil, fresh water, clean air? It takes more than just electricity to grow crops, manufacture plastics and solar cells, power every dump-truck in the world, and all the planes and all the shipping. The reason people like me seem to give renewable energy an undeservedly hard time is because there is a severe lack of information about the gaps. We hear lots about forthcoming battery technology, and new catalysts, which I have no doubt are possible, at a cost. A cost which will no doubt fall as demand rises, up to a point. But too few people are willing to say that we cannot live as we do today. The areas of land and sea necessary simply are not available to build the turbines, solar farms and other renewable devices we would need. But to admit that would be to admit that we were wrong about our way of life.”
Cubic mile of oil
In the last five minutes of her allotted time, Ellie said, “Last year, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers created a wonderful graphic to try to explain some of the enormous and confusing numbers associated with energy—there are a range of units all requiring modifiers such as millions, billions and trillions. So think of it this way: in 2006, the world produced around 26.9 billion barrels of crude oil and condensate, which some bright spark noticed was equivalent to just over one cubic mile of oil. While that might still be a hard-to-grasp unit, you all know what a mile is and you all know what a cube is—that’s a lot of oil! But the scary bit is that to replace the energy within one cubic mile of oil would require 50 years’ production from any one of these options: four Three Gorges dams; 52 nuclear power plants; 104 coal-fired power plants; 32,850 wind turbines; or over 91 million solar panels. That’s each year for fifty years to supply the energy contained within the oil we used in just one year. I don’t know how accurate those figures are, nor how renewable technology will advance in the future, but it certainly helps to explain why oil will be so hard to replace without a serious shift in our way of thinking. If it was up to me, these figures would be emblazoned on cereal packets and billboards!
“OK, back to oil prices. In the case where they are too low for producers, the possibility of collapse arises. This really is the ‘C-word’! Many early economies seem to have collapsed as they reached resource limits but they were primitive and not as smart as we are. Or so we tell ourselves. While always open to misinterpretation, historically, collapse seems to come along during times of growing wealth disparity, inadequate wages for non-elite workers, failing governments, debt defaults, resource wars, and epidemics. Sound familiar? The collapse of Easter Island society in the early 18th century is like a miniature version of western society today. Mainstream culture might acknowledge that environmentally-speaking, we have to use less energy but economically that would be suicide if we took it too far, so screw the environment. We see the problem, but take no action in the hopes that we really are so smart now that our society simply could not collapse. I doubt the last Easter Islanders were that arrogant but being thousands of miles from anywhere, they really had nowhere else to go. We do have options but we need to rework our blind belief in the economy to reflect reality—that the environment sustains each and every one of us. What has to happen before we start thinking things like ‘environmentally-speaking, continuing with growth economics is suicidal, so screw the economy!’?”
One thing Ellie appreciated about being invited to speak was considering the context of the audience. Ellie felt she was pretty good on energy and environment, but on the third axis—economy—she felt like a total novice. But she relished the challenge of introducing the basic issues of sustainability to other groups of people in a context they can relate to. To talk about topics like diminishing returns requires a special kind of audience. But it is an important message as diminishing returns can be thought of as growing inefficiency, and the concept applies to diminishing returns on investment as well as on energy use.
“The problem with paying higher prices for what is equivalent to growing inefficiency can be hidden for a while, if the economy is growing rapidly enough. And here’s the key…our economy is unlikely to grow rapidly for some time. We are facing the most challenging financial crisis since the Great Depression. The free market is quite clearly not an infallible, self-correcting mechanism where ‘free’ competition gives rise to perfect knowledge that leads inexorably towards equilibrium, as some of you may have been taught. Rather, markets are made up of people and people suffer from bias and misconception, which invalidates any model saying otherwise. Economists have not embraced this view, largely because it threatens to undermine the myth that economics is a purely objective science. It’s a social science at best.” Ellie did not know of the billions of dollars, pounds and euros soon to be quantitatively eased out of the crumbling financial system in an attempt to patch the system up enough to continue with ‘business as usual’.
“As I’m sure you know, a growing economy can hide a multitude of sins. Paying back debt with interest is easy, if a worker finds his wages growing. Once the economy stops growing, wage disparity becomes a huge problem, it becomes impossible to repay debt with interest, young people’s standards of living are lower than those of their parents, investments do not appear to be worthwhile without government subsidies, businesses find that economies of scale no longer work to their advantage and pension promises become overwhelming, compared to the wages of young people. All of these things will happen if this credit crash does not shake us out of our complacency.”
That’s all for now, folks!
Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and can make a decent pot of soup. She never wanted children but if she could have guaranteed producing one like Greta Thunberg, she might have given it a go!